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.