Writing about Family: A Sacred Cow or Smorgasbord?

By Holly Cardamone

Family is undoubtedly the richest source of inspiration for a writer, nonfiction or otherwise. Things happen in families. Families ritualistically dance together joyously at a child’s twenty-first birthday party and behave abominably towards each other during Christmas lunch. We become both witnesses to and participants in family-specific rites of passage, emblematic characteristics and dialogue, and ongoing domestic drama. A loved one may display mannerisms and affects that when captured vividly in writing creates a powerful presence within text.

However, the ability to use elements of a loved one’s personal life is dependent upon the writer’s level of comfort in manipulating aspects of a parent or a sibling’s personality and behavior for the sake of the writing. The cantankerous squabbling of elderly grandparents can make for fascinating and funny dialogue within a text, yet in the back of a writer’s mind may lay anxiety in an uncomfortably accurate portrayal or representation of a family member, who within a text becomes a character.

When using family as a subject when writing I often struggle with an almost tangible tension between revealing and concealing. My mother sits on one shoulder with an angelic look of “please don’t,” while my father sits on the other, grinning devilishly, telling me to go for it. This tension can actually be quite disabling; for fear of disapproval, for misrepresentation or perhaps even a fear of betrayal. Australian writer Helen Garner concedes “I tried hard to be irresponsible, to vanish, to be swallowed up by the texture of the writing. Because the one who records will never be forgiven. Endured, yes; tolerated, put up with, borne, and still loved; but not forgiven.” This is a frightening concept. Who wants to alienate herself from her own family? Or to reveal a family’s perceived shame or embarrassment to the public sphere?

My grandmother was recently admitted into an aged care facility, against her will. The day she was admitted, I sat at my mother’s table with her two sisters and her brother as, red-eyed and traumatized by Nana’s distress, they reminisced about their childhood when their mother was a strong, independent presence in their lives. They could’t share all of their recollections; my mother, sixteen years younger than her brother, had a different set of memories about her mother as a young woman. That day I reflected on the struggle within families about who owns families, about who has the most accurate portrayal of a loved one. It struck me that if I were to write about my grandmother’s life, it is a very real possibility that my extended family, my aunts, my cousins, may not cope with or accept my representation of their loved one.

Writing represents our opinions about experiences, people, personalities, and events. Reconstructions subsequently arise from our memory, our imagination, and are written and recreated in the manner in which we consciously create them. To write about one’s family honestly and openly is a courageous act, and one with which this writer struggles. However, my family is made up of an array of characters that deserve immortalizing through text, particularly through my representation of the characters. Christmas lunches may continue to be interesting.


Writing Family Stories

By Dr. Marlene Caroselli

“As you are, I once was; As I am, you will be.”

Why revisit the past? Why record family stories? Nestled in the gently undulating hills above Celano, Italy, lies a cemetery. The brittle, silvery leaves of olive trees whisper to the tombstones there, creating the smallest disturbances in the buttery scene. The Abruzzi sun bleaches the air and the marble and the earth to stillness, as it has done for centuries.

In this cemetery, in these hills, one gravestone in particular offers a prophetic insight into the future. When we were children, my father reminded us of those gravestone words whenever we scoffed at the caution learned by those older than we. He tried to change our youthful irreverence, an irreverence marked by brilliant, insouciant optimism. He tried to convert it to awareness — awareness of time and its inexorable progress toward old age. Convinced we would never succumb to toothlessness, hair loss, or arthritic knees, the words barely penetrated our thin shell of experience. The words come back now, though: “As you are, I once was. As I am, you will be.”

The stories that were an insignificant part of my childhood have been transformed, in my own adulthood, into a tribute to my father and the undeniable spirit that led him across the Atlantic Ocean. Newly revisited, that spirit has led me to the tiny graveyard once again, in the corner of my mind in which “useless” information has been piled.

My father’s story is an insight into childhood in a faraway time, a distant land, a time and place so removed that it bears little relevance to children today. On the other hand, perhaps it bears all the relevance in the world. You, too can travel to those times and places. They lie in the heart of every elderly person you know. The only passport you need to enter is the willingness to listen. Visit there often. You’ll learn, as I did in dewy morning conversations with my father, about the past and how it can shape your future. Scan the verses of an elderly person. Learn the meter of their days. Delight in their stanzas before death denies their words a place on blank pages. You can meet your own future by returning to your past.

How to pull the stories out of mental storage

When my father slipped into his 90th year, he continued to deny death, continued to defy life. His voice cracked then but it once roared. As he aged, he shuffled back and forth because his back was “wobbly.” But he used to stride. He used to march, in fact, through the streets of our childhood — his back erect, his head held high. He planted seeds every summer and shoveled snow every winter, but that was before congestive heart failure became his master.

He was a man whose mosaic I will never grasp full sight of. But I have pieces. I have pieces. He yielded them to me in the early morning hours. As I massaged his back to clear his lungs, the way nurses taught me, I asked questions about his early life in a place, in a time I will never know. He unlocked those memories grudgingly at first, and then with greater detail. My father’s story, which is now in print, started the moment he grasped life in the small town of Celano, Italy, and ended — in the memoir at least — the day he left for the land of opportunity.

Drumrolling my hands across his back, I listened as he brushed the dust off old memories. I discovered what sins could be committed in the name of religion. I listened and I came to understand that the violence of the body is nothing compared to the violence of words that can rip the heart and sear the spirit. I realized that the declaration of death may be the very beginning of life and that cruelty can be inadvertent. I found, by reliving his past with him, that small gestures could cause large fissures in the heart. And that there is poetry in the most prosaic of lives.

Find that poetry by:

  • Asking open-ended questions. “Dad, what was school like for you in the old days?”

  • Listening without interruption. Keep paper and pencil nearby so you can write down what you wanted to ask and not worry about forgetting it.

  • Recording what is told to you. In my case, the book was a gift to my father, one he did not realize he would be receiving. And so, after our morning interviews, I would rush to my computer and list all the details from the outline I had recorded as I listened. If a tape recorder is not intrusive in your circumstances, so much the better.

  • Taking time and giving time. Don’t rush the raconteur. Be patient with his or her pauses. Yes, you can prompt but don’t take over. It’s not your story, after all.

  • Using simple, single words. “Dad, when I say ‘apple,’ what memories does it bring to mind from your childhood?”

By spending time with your family treasure, by validating the life he or she has lived, you will be doing more than gathering material for writing. You will be passing along to future generations your family’s legacy. What writing is more important than that?

Dr. Marlene Caroselli is the author of 55 business books and a fictionalized memoir, The Boy Who Braved the Mountains.