Sunday, March 7, 2010

Erasing Family Stories—and Reclaiming Them

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

I learned to erase stories at a young age.

This profoundly inhibited my writing, so much so that I didn't realize it until well past college and into adulthood. Then, in the late 1980s, I took a workshop with Bobbie Louise Hawkins, the indie fiction writer and poet, in which she urged us to write down a family story.

Every family has stories, she said in her tell-tale drawl, stories they tell for comfort, for fun, for explanation—even if it's the wrong explanation. Family stories are powerful, she said.

I nodded along. But I felt my arms locking around my body. A stone seemed to lodge in my throat. I could visualize the stone—egg-shaped, smooth, glittering, obsidian—but no story.

At the time, her collection Almost Everything, which includes "Back to Texas" about Bobbie Louise's childhood, seemed like an unsentimental gem to me. In "When I was little...," she writes:
"The bottom fell out of melons that year and made them not worth the picking. We would walk along the rows busting ripe melons and eating only the heart. It was a luxury that took some heroism; the sand was hot as a frying pan and we were bare-footed."
I remember Bobbie Louise exhorting us to delete all adverbs and adjectives. That wasn't hard for me to do. But stripping out the sloppy language left me with nothing like a melon's heart.

I had no tall tales to draw on, I realized, no stories about larger-than-life aunts or uncles or "favorite cousins." I didn't come from a Southern storytelling tradition. But worse, I came from a family with little motivation to remember.

Growing up with a mentally ill parent encouraged helpless watching. Our family creed was constant erasure of pain, of blame. For the budding writer I was, it undercut my ability to convey what I saw.

My mother used to tell me to lie about her affliction, especially on medical forms, because of the prejudice against the mentally ill. This became a received truth for me, an uncontested way of being. Meanwhile, she often abandoned her own advice, explaining her diagnosis to work acquaintances, hair-cutters, postal carriers, grocery-store checkers.

Now I see too well the problem with erasing the consequences of breakdowns and raging fits, of shifting the blame in euphemisms such as "your mother was sick." For a good story, you need protagonists, not helpless watchers. You need someone to admit what's wrong.

When children grow up with adults erasing and reworking the truth, those kids can rebel. They also freeze up.

I've done both, and I still imagine every line I write disappearing as soon as the pencil moves on, every word I type vanishing on the screen. I see a little girl hunkering at the bottom of a deep hole, only a circle of blue sky above.

I see teenage me scribbling in lined yellow notepads, drawing cartoons, some of sexy women with ballooning breasts, some of angels and fairies—and every one of these forbidden images erased as soon as I mark it down.

Bad things would happen in our family—even good things—but nobody ever talked about them. I grew up with no sense of shared narrative, no comforting beginnings, middles, and ends. For a girl who loved The Lord of the Rings and Sherlock Holmes and Mary Renault novels and the Greek myths, it was like being blindfolded. 
    Then, I think, that's not true. We did talk about the time my mother trudged all the way up Mt. Lassen, as if she'd conquered Everest. We talked about our adventures driving across the Mojave desert late at night, eating pinion nuts at dawn in our over-heating Dodge. I think we must have.

    Yet the tenuousness of my own memories disturbs me. I do remember, but few events of my childhood were converted into cherished stories we told over and over. Without that cherishing, memories become endangered, too.

    For the longest time, pulling together stories or articles eluded me as a professional writer, no matter how much I knew about expository writing. I wrote poetry, but my impulse faltered there, too. Even in the most non-linear of forms, truth eventually needs to shine through.

    It's not an accident that I toiled as an editor of other people's stories for years. For at least a decade, my husband and close friends knew I was doing the equivalent of yanking my own hair out—I need time to write! When will I ever have time to write?—trapped by my own tangle of frustrations.

    Bobbie Louise Hawkins is not immune from erasing and reworking the truth of her life. She was once unhappily married to the poet Robert Creeley, and I remember her talking about her insomnia, her own depression. Perhaps reshaping stories is what all writers do. Yet mining our own lives does seem like the right place to start. You can't get to the poetic compression of Bobbie Louise's work, for example, without acknowledging what came before.

    Here's how she autographed my copy of Almost Everything: "For Martha, with pleasure—keep it up—see you again! Bobbie Louise Hawkins, August 6, 1988." I haven't seen her since, but even the hint that I had something to share or "keep up" has propelled me forward. That workshop became a turning point.

    Now I write down every passing idea in my writing notebooks, and they pile up year after year. Sometimes I read through a notebook cover to cover, especially when I'm on a long airplane ride by myself, when I have time to stare at the clouds, to allow that smooth obsidian egg its due.

    My notebooks are rich in ideas, stories, anecdotes, mental life, but often I come across entries that I've completely forgotten. It's not just that I'm getting older; I was well schooled in how to forget. But I don't want to forget. Not ever again. I'm obsessed with the notion of writing it all down, of the words remaining solid and present.

    Sometimes I worry I'll lose the notebooks, they'll burn in a house fire, they'll be stolen.

    It still comes hard in my own family, telling stories with my young son. But I make sure that we talk about "the time you had to swallow that malaria pill and you kept spitting it out" or "the time you sprayed insect repellent in your eyes, and you screamed so loud we had to call Poison Control. We had to hold you close until you calmed down."

    I know this pool of stories is the underground life of my family. For an adoptee like my son, having family stories to draw on, to claim, seems crucial for his evolving sense of self. We build identity through stories, through being allowed to speak—not by keeping our mouths shut.

    In a 2004 monologue, which she performed at the Naropa Summer Writing Program in Boulder, Colorado, Bobbie Louise Hawkins talks about a "happy ending" ironically, poignantly, wisely:
    "It's time to adore the mundane. The daily is your heart's desire. The mundane world must be our joy. The daily, be our darling. The commonplace, be our morning song. The usual, be our heaven. The common place, our morning star. The usual. Sit on the veranda, drink tea, watch ducks navigate the pond. It is summer. And you are living a very long, unfinished, Russian novel...."
    Yes. Every family has their own version of War and Peace. Mine hovers somewhere between The Idiot and Nabokov's Pale Fire.

    But I've learned to live with my guilt and shell-shock. I've learned "to adore the mundane," because I'm writing my own Russian novel.


    1. Very moving piece, Martha. I also love Bobbie Louise Hawkin's work, though I never have had the chance to study with her. I can see that you have begun writing your own stories -- maybe you needed to be a parent yourself first.

    2. You're right, Carol, there's something about being a parent that has freed me up. I'm not sure why--the stakes are higher? I want to do things differently? Maybe it's just that life is short, and it's time to tell my own story.

    3. Martha,
      Thank you for writing this. As children of mentally ill parents, making our own families -- with their own stories -- is how we survive. Our children will have a much stronger, more honest foundation than we got. Keep writing this stuff -- it resonates.

    4. Hi Martha,
      What an exquisite piece. In my childhood home, things were "erased" as well. When I began writing my memoir, memories were hard to come by. I had journals that helped me with the later years, but nothing from early childhood. It took 10 years for that process to complete and I had a published book. Be gentle with yourself. Images and feelings will emerge. I have to tell you, I would be first in line to buy anything you would publish.

    5. I have to say, you have all made my day.

      Karen and Judith, I appreciate your perspectives, because I know you understand. And, Karen, you're so right to remind me to be gentle with myself. I think one of the worst legacies of a family like mine is the level of guilt I feel and my lack of gentleness regarding all I experienced as a child. One of many reasons my early memories are hard to come by, I expect.

      Thank you.

    6. Heartrending piece, Martha, yet uplifting and inspiring, too. Bravo for expressing how vital it is for our children to grow up feeling a strong sense of security and "rightness" with the world. Yes, having our own children makes us protective, makes us long to "do things differently" for them. You've done a brave thing, hacking a path through the dense forest of your own childhood in order to gift your son with the confidence he needs to write down his own stories someday. I look forward to reading them.


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