Writing Family

(Chapter 4 of MFA in a Box)

by John Rember


What do we love so much we want to protect it from strangers? —Robert Bly

EACH OF US bears a family on our shoulders whether we want to or not. So there are children, brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers, grandparents or great grandparents reading this chapter along with you. When you sit down to write, they’ll be right there too.

Your family has the ability to travel with you even when all you’ve bought is a ticket for one. When you look at other people, you don’t see family faces right away. But as you begin to feel part of a group, and that group has an identity, the faces of strangers suddenly begin to seem familiar.

Familiar. Family-ar.

A STORY you’ve written comes before a writing workshop and one of the other workshop members—up to right now your newest best friend—speaks that deadly phrase, “I liked it, but…” and then he says something awful about your story, the story you poured your heart and soul into, the story that you ?nally found the courage to tell.

Suddenly you can’t hear anything at all. Your ears stop functioning. However, your vision gets better. You can see what you hadn’t before: that’s not your best friend, that’s your sibling sit¬ting here in the workshop with you.

You look to the workshop instructor, but she seems to be paying serious attention to what your sibling is saying, and there’s a rule that you can’t say anything about your story while it’s being workshopped because your writing is supposed to speak for itself, and it would, except this—this person, this former newest best friend—hasn’t even read your story.

Now he’s saying the same thing about your story that the instructor said about a story last week, and the instructor is nod¬ding and smiling like he’s saying something smart. Can’t she see what he’s doing? No, she can’t, obviously. How’d she get to be a workshop instructor anyway? Spilled her guts over a ream of paper and called it a memoir. Put a bunch of depressing mid¬night diary entries into a book and called it poetry. And even if she could write, she can’t teach.

Two can play this game. Your ex-newest-best-friend’s story is up tomorrow. He didn’t read yours but you’re going to read his. You’re going to read it line by line, and write detailed notes in tiny handwriting in the margins, and when he gets it back he’s going to know something about you that he didn’t know before: that you value honesty, even if it hurts.

It’s the only way to help him improve as a writer.

I CONDUCTED my ?rst creative writing workshop in September of 1974. It was full of ninth and tenth graders in a small private school in Sun Valley, Idaho. The author of my first workshopped story left the room in tears. I felt terrible. Then the author of my second workshopped story left the room in tears. When the third story came up I asked the person in the workshop who had been doing most of the talking to shut up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had brought her invisible but incisive and critical mother into my workshop. When I told her to shut up, the mother vanished completely and the daughter—suddenly alone and facing a bunch of angry people—left the room in tears.

In the thirty years since that time I’ve learned less about running a workshop than you might think, but I do intervene a little more quickly and gently when workshop dynamics seem to be leading to tears.

It’s an inexact science. There’s something about sitting around a table with stories in our hands that brings up our family dinners, dinners where the leftover pot roast isn’t the only evidence of carnage when the table is ready for clearing.

James Hillman, in his essay, “Extending the Family” writes: “The sign ‘Home Cooking’ might still bring in some customers, but for many the family table [is] the place of trauma…Here, at the table, family fights over money, politics or morals are most likely to break out, and… [the very notion of what constitutes ‘good’ food takes on its definitive form.] Here anorexia and bulimia—[and obesity]—appear first. Whether the atmosphere at meals is boisterous and competitive, or chaotic, or gravely formalized, tension is always on the menu.”

Without much effort, you can probably remember the worst family dinner you ever attended, what made it so awful, and why you get angry every time you think about it. Sitting at a table with a story in your hands isn’t so different from sitting at a table with bread in your hands, and a glass of wine in front of you, and a secret nobody wants to talk about on everybody’s mind.

THERE’S A REASON that I’m addressing you in the Second Person Aggressive. When someone starts talking about family or stories, it’s all too easy to imagine that it’s not your family and not your story that’s being talked about.

But, yes, I’m talking about your family, the one you grew up in, the people that you carry with you as you read this. And I’m talking about your story, which may be yours alone or—more likely—may be the one your family forced upon you.

I am also addressing you as a writer, and no family is indifferent to having a writer in its midst. They are with you to make sure that you get an education, but that you don’t learn anything they don’t want you to learn, or write anything they don’t want you to write.

One way to define a family is that it’s a secret-keeping machine, and writers are the finders and blabbers of secrets.

One of the things MFA stands for is Might Freely Admit. And what you might freely admit is that Uncle Ernie lives down in the crawl space and seems to be quite happy there, at least since the operation. Or that Cousin Elmer, the fire-and-brim¬stone preacher, is being hounded for money by that girl he got pregnant when he was in high school. Or little Johnny can’t have a pet because the last three rabbits he got for his birthdays died in horrible ways.

THE FAMILY’S FEAR is that you might freely admit the truth, and it doesn’t have to be a truth that anyone else would see as damaging to the family. My original title for this chapter, “If You Publish That, You’ll Kill Your Mother,” is a quote from my brother, who had just read the manuscript for Traplines, my memoir. At the time, it had been accepted for publication by Pantheon, and my reaction to his warning was, “Well, I guess she’s gonna die.”

What he was talking about was a passage I had written about my father’s death that described how painful his last month was. What my mother said upon reading that passage was, “Thank you for that wonderful tribute to your father’s courage.” It didn’t kill her at all.

What I’ve figured out since my brother told me not to publish is that he’s terribly frightened of dying alone in a hospital at 3 A.M. I’m afraid of that, too, but I’ve admitted it could happen and therefore can write about it. My brother doesn’t want to admit that, and I’m not so sure that his isn’t the right approach. He doesn’t wake up at 3 A.M. and think about dying, like I do, or if he does he doesn’t tell me.

What my brother read in my manuscript for Traplines wasn’t there. It was potentially there, and terrifying thoughts were sparked into being when he read the manuscript.

That’s one reason your family might not want you to publish your memories of your adolescent years. Publication gives a cultural heft to your story. It’s hard to ignore a published writer, and even harder to ignore the stories that writer tells. You can write miserable self-obsessed poetry and hide it in the bottom left-hand drawer of your dresser, and your family may call you a poet. But publish one of those miserable self-obsessed poems in The New Yorker, and in response to the congratulations of family friends and old high-school teachers, a father is likely to say, “I don’t know where she learned that stuff. Certainly not from me.” But chances are you did learn some misery or self-obsession from him. If you turned that misery and self-obsession into publishable poetry, good for you. Your father isn’t going to like what you did with his gifts.

In my time in the classroom I have learned that if you stand at the lectern and shoot your mouth off about anorexia, or incest, or bankruptcy, or someone who sits at home and watches TV all day and won’t get a job, or a child given up for adoption, you will stab two or three people right in the heart. Unless they’re writers. Then you give them an idea for a story.

JOAN DIDION ends her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem with the sentence, “That is one thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” Kurt Vonnegut had a riff he repeated to his college audiences who showed up for an evening of being lectured to by someone who actually made money being a writer. He told them, “I realize that some of you may have come in hopes of hearing tips on how to become a professional writer. I say to you, ‘If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.’”

Vonnegut is being funny here by twisting an unfunny truth, which is that if you’re homosexual, it’s likely that you know far more about the power of family than if you’re heterosexual. Even if parents aren’t worried, siblings are. And if siblings aren’t, aunts or uncles or children are. In almost every instance the worry for them is going to be a lot less if you stay in the closet. Families are conservative institutions, which is why political and social conservatives constantly invoke them, even when their policies starve children and destroy educational institutions and ostracize some members of families.

But Vonnegut isn’t really talking about homosexuality. He is talking about writing, and how it can be seen as something shameful yet powerful and seductive by people who stand on the outside of it. Vonnegut could have put it differently. He could have said, “If you want to really find out if your family loves you or hates you, become a writer.”

IN THE POLITICS OF EXPERIENCE, R.D. Laing dis-cusses how our experience—that thing we get from living in the world—is modified and sometimes destroyed by violence masquerading as love. The book portrays culture in violent conflict with the individual, and contains this sentence, written in 1964: “In the past fifty years, we human beings have slaughtered by our own hands…one hundred million of our own species. We all live under the threat of total annihilation…we are driven to kill and be killed as we are to live and let live. Only by the most outrageous violation of ourselves [can we] adjust to a civilization driven to its own destruction.”

I like The Politics of Experience because it gives me permission to think the unthinkable: civilization is insane and if I don’t separate myself from it and get some perspective on its ongoing self-destruction, I will be insane, too.

Laing is explicit: “From the moment of birth…the baby is subjected to these forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father, and their parents and their parents before them, have been. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world. This is normality in our present age.”

I loved this stuff forty years ago. It gave psychiatric sanction to what I was intuiting at a time when our government was in the act of destroying another nation for its own pro?t. It told me to be sane in an insane world, and in that command I found a great freedom.

So I did not have to die in Vietnam. I did not have to enter the harness of matrimony or the prison of morality. I could ingest illegal substances if I felt like it, and have sex with people I’d only known for a few hours. I didn’t have to have a house in the suburbs or a career. I didn’t have to make more money than a bare minimum, because money was an express ticket to madness.

I love this stuff now, too, but I’ve learned that total freedom, if I might be permitted a rock concert metaphor, starts out at Woodstock and ends, sickeningly soon, at the Altamont Raceway. The equivalent literary metaphor is that we should read Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, with its bleak view of human nature, along with The Politics of Experience.

Laing himself wrote a book called The Politics of the Family a few years later, and if The Politics of Experience is like a jailbreak for the mind, The Politics of the Family is like a week after that jailbreak, when you’re hiding in a culvert, wet and cold, listening to the hounds bay. Because Laing stopped saying that there was a way out. Instead, he started analyzing the family that we all have inside of us, and how it got there, and the near-total impossibility of doing anything about it.

When Laing writes about your family being with you, he’s referring to a set of people who might have once been on your outside but who have since made places for themselves on your inside. If you close your eyes, you can probably see your moth¬er’s face. She’s sitting there with you, inside you.

It’s a switch to have your mother inside of you.

But Laing’s concept of family includes not just interior people but also “an interior set of relations.” In other words, beyond the images of your family that you carry inside you, you also carry a deep understanding of how people work when they’re in a group.

It’s much harder to escape the way-people-work concept than it is to reject a family religion or family definitions of gender or a position in the family corporation or a tradition of family military service.

Laing says structures of the family become the structures of our mind. The experience of the family becomes our own experience. The dreams of the family become the landscapes of our sleep.

THESE DAYS Laing has lost his luster as a psychotherapist, partly because of advances in neurochemistry, but also because his message was one of paranoia: a diagnosis of mental illness is often the result of seeing things as they are instead of believing in the lies of our family or our culture. He may be right—I think he is right, at least for writers—but a belief that you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong is not a step on the road to peace of mind.

Research into the brain chemistry of schizophrenics has provided more acceptable metaphors for what is going on when you go crazy. But there are a few defenders of Laing who point out that to see through the factions of family and culture is such a powerful and alienating experience in itself that it can alter your brain chemistry.

In any event, I find Laing a very good psychologist for writers, one who is not so reductive that he transforms our art into a pile of dead components. Instead, he offers a way to disobey family orders, and shows you the metaphorical machine guns those family orders were telling you to charge into.

He also offers a way to tell the truth through telling stories. He suggests that stories are things that we are born into, live in, and die out of. It’s hard to see them from the outside. But if you can look at your family story from the outside, you’ve passed a milepost on the road to becoming a writer. An alienated writer. An estranged writer. But a writer.

LET’S LEAVE Laing for a while. Let me tell you a story.

In the fall of 1964, I fell in love. I was fourteen and a brand-new high school student. I was in the midst of setting a school record for geekiness, but that didn’t stop me from becoming infatuated with Cassandra Greene, the homecoming queen that year. Cassandra was small-boned and delicate and sprite-like, with great dark eyes and a mass of tumbling black hair that reached her waist. She was, to my unpracticed eyes, the most beautiful woman in the high school and maybe the world. She was seventeen and a senior.

There were fewer than two hundred students in our high school and I would see Cassandra in the hallways almost every day. To my amazement, she liked me. She would call me by name, a kindness seniors almost never gave to freshmen. She smiled at me. She asked me how my classes were going.

It took a week for me to develop a monster crush on her, which lasted until I asked her if I could walk her home from school. She told me no. She only lived about a block from the school and there wasn’t any point in it.

Not long after, I saw her laughing with one of her girlfriends. I decided that they were laughing at me, a freshman boy, thinking he could walk a senior woman home from school. The rest of the week was horrible. I avoided her until the homecoming football game, when I stood with the rest of the crowd at half¬time and watched the captain of the football team place a tiara on her head and a kiss on her lips. It was the bitterest moment of my young life.

Then Cassandra burst into tears and began sobbing. She smiled through the sobs and everyone cheered and then the ceremony was over. The game started and even though I don’t remember if we won, I still remember her smiling face, streaked with tears, across forty-six years.

But her smile wasn’t a smile. When I looked at it recently in my high school yearbook, I found Cassandra’s homecoming queen picture. Her smile was what romance writers call a rictus of pain, and above what I had thought a smile were two sad eyes.

Over the years, I’ve learned that you can cry when you’re happy and smile when you’re not. I also learned within my first year in high school that you can get over a painful romantic crush, especially if you get another crush on someone else. I started dating—not successfully, but dating. I forgot Cassandra and didn’t go to her graduation, and haven’t seen her in person since.

But she has remembered me her entire life. That sounds like a vain and self-obsessed thing to say, but it’s true. I found that out twenty years later, when I was in a hotel in San Francisco, waiting to get on a plane to Bangkok. With me was Blake, a teaching colleague and friend who happened to be Cassandra’s nephew—though I didn’t know that.

Blake and I were both on sabbatical, and single. We had money in savings and were looking forward to three months traveling around Southeast Asia. It was a moment where if you had asked me if I had a care or obligation or worry in the world, I would have said no.

We had a day before our plane left, and Blake said he wanted to visit his uncle, who worked in one of the cities across the Bay. He told me his uncle’s name, and I said I knew the guy from high school. Blake then told me his uncle was married to Cassandra Greene. It was a moment of wonderful coincidence, or at least I thought so at the time. Blake phoned his uncle to find out how to get to their house.

Everything went fine until Blake asked, “Is it okay if I bring John Rember with me?” There was a silence, and then Blake’s uncle asked if he could call him back. Five minutes later the phone rang. His uncle said it was a bad time to visit and we should go to Thailand and see them some other time.

So we went out for beer and Blake told me a story about his uncle and his Aunt Cassandra. They had begun dating in high school, and sometime in the spring of her sophomore year Cassandra had gotten pregnant. Cassandra’s father had imprisoned her in their home while he held a series of secret meetings with Blake’s grandfather to decide what to do. Blake said the two men would meet at night in one of the canyons outside of town, with a prearranged signal: three headlight flashes, followed by a single flash. That was so they could recognize each other out there among the deer and the sagebrush and any other patriarchs trying to decide the fate of pregnant high school sophomores.

The two fathers decided that Cassandra and Blake’s uncle would be separated. Cassandra would go to a home for unwed mothers, have the child, and give it up for adoption. Blake’s uncle, away at college, would be forbidden to see Cassandra ever again.

Cassandra disappeared from school her junior year, reappeared her senior year, and was elected homecoming queen by the Lettermen’s Club, which is the way our high school selected its homecoming royalty. Her baby had been a girl. She had given her up for adoption. The child, for all most people in the high school knew, never existed.

Two years later, Cassandra and Blake’s uncle ran away and got married. When Cassandra’s father died a decade later, they were still estranged from him. The old man had forbidden Cassandra’s mother to be in touch with Cassandra or even speak of her. When he died, Cassandra’s mother was finally able to see her own daughter again.

IN THE MIDDLE of my crush on Cassandra, I had wondered why she didn’t have a boyfriend.That question was soon replaced by: if she didn’t have a boyfriend, why not me? I had known nothing about how Cassandra had spent her junior year, but she assumed that I knew everything about her history.

Sometimes you not only don’t know the answer, you don’t know enough to not ask the question, and you don’t even know the question not to ask.

But sitting in a bar in San Francisco in 1984, I was able to understand how a smile could be a rictus of pain, and how it was not good to be queen at Wood River High School in 1964, which is why Blake and I couldn’t show up at her door. Her father and her father-in-law would have been with us.

A YEAR AGO Blake told me there was more to this story. Cassandra and Blake’s uncle had had four children after they were married. They had kept the secret of the sister they had given away from the rest of their kids. By the time all four children had reached college age, Cassandra and Blake’s uncle were finding their lives to be long on misery. They had decided to get divorced.

They were in the middle of the divorce when their long-lost daughter showed up on their doorstep. She had been able to track them down because of changes in confidentiality policy regarding adoptions. She was thirty-six years old, and an attorney.

I’d like to be able to tell you that she did their divorce for them, but instead her appearance was taken as a divine command for a complete and utter reconciliation. God spoke, in the language of grandfathers.

SO WHERE do you suppose individual free will ?ts in Cassandra’s story? Where do family secrets, family taboos, family traditions, and angry patriarchs leave off and where does Cassandra’s life begin? What do Cassandra’s four, now five, children think of their grandfathers? What must it have been like to grow up with a shadow sibling? Were they aware of a ghost on Christmas morning? Was there a shadow under the tree? Was there a gift still hidden in the top of the hall closet?

LET US GO BACK to R.D. Laing for help with this story. Laing provides some useful ways of looking at the family rules that make a story like Cassandra’s possible. He starts at a basic level, writing that, “…by [the time you’re one year old] the fol¬lowing distinctions have come to be made:”
• inside and outside
• pleasure and pain
• real and not real
• good and bad
• me and not me
• here and there
• then and now

You probably didn’t come to these distinctions by trial and error in your first year. Your family made them for you. If you had made them for yourself, all hell would have broken loose, as it must have when you put something icky inside your mouth that was supposed to remain on your outside.

Laing has a simple thought experiment that shows how powerfully we make these distinctions:
1. Swallow the saliva in your mouth.
2. Take a glass of water, sip from it and swallow.
3. Spit in the glass of water, swallow spit and water.
4. Sip from the glass of water, spit it back, sip again and swallow.

Laing is demonstrating that essentially the same operation— the swallowing of saliva—becomes four different things when you play with the barrier between inside and outside, me and not me, here and there, and so on. Imagine those same distinctions coming into play if you’re a small-town Idaho businessman who has just discovered that his fifteen-year-old is pregnant. Imagine those distinctions coming into play if Cassandra, instead of eloping at nineteen, had gone to her father and told him she was going to become a writer, and she’s going to write about giving away her child.

It’s likely that Cassandra would see her book as now-here¬me-good-real-painful-inside, while her father would have seen the book as then-there-not me-bad-unreal-painful-outside. The only thing they would agree on is the pain.

“It didn’t happen that way. What you think happened to you was not real,” is just one of the lies he would have told her, and she wouldn’t have written the book. If her shame kept her story from her four other children for thirty years, could she have put it into words on paper?

I tell my students that on the page it’s safe to do all the things you want to do but wouldn’t dare to in the physical world, but on the level of family taboo, putting it into words and publishing it is far worse than doing it.

Here are some things that families have said to my writing students:
• Why don’t you get a degree in something that will make you money?
• Written that best-seller yet?
• Why do you want to dredge that up again?
• Those are all lies. We didn’t send you to college to learn to tell lies.
• I didn’t like your novel, but I really liked that garden article you did for Sunset Magazine.
• Don’t most writers drink too much?
• You are so talented. You could do a lot of other things.
• It’s so good to have a writer in the family. Grandfather’s story needs to be told.

LAING SAYS it’s easier to see how dysfunctional families work than it is to see how functional families work. He suggests that the rules may be stronger and subtler in functioning families, and the freedom less, the hope for change nonexistent.

Writing is one of the rare professions where a dysfunctional family can help your career. Because if the family rules are irrational, or crazy, or unjust, there’s a chance that you might see them as arbitrary and breakable rules, and one of the jobs of a writer—to paraphrase my colleague, the poet Marvin Bell—is to find the rules and break the rules. If the rules are working perfectly and you’re feeling free within their invisible lines, it’s much harder to find them.

HERE’S WHAT a few other writers have done with family dysfunction:

In her novel Other Women, the writer Lisa Alther tells the story of a competent, intelligent psychotherapist who goes to her parents’ home for Thanksgiving. Within a few hours of crossing her parents’ threshold, she is reduced to a crying, screaming adolescent, as unable to function as the most neurotic of her clients.

Her sophisticated education and wisdom are gone. The rages she felt as a teenager with a curfew are back.

In John Cheever’s short story “Goodbye, My Brother,” the narrator, a kindly and articulate English teacher—all English teachers are kindly and articulate—who loves sailing and dancing and beautiful women and the conviviality that comes with alcohol, is confronted by his little brother, who loves none of those things, and ends up beating him over the head with a piece of driftwood as they walk upon the beach.

In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Benjy, the only character free from the dictates of Southern culture and Southern family, is castrated because he can’t be controlled by family standards of decency.

In Tennessee Williams’ play Suddenly Last Summer, a young woman who exposes her brother’s homosexuality is sedated while her mother tells her doctors to lobotomize her: “Cut that lie out of her,” is the old woman’s way of putting it.

Eugene O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night to lay the tormented dead of his family to rest, and in doing so guaranteed their tormented immortality.

In Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, a father and older brother conspire to have sex with a younger brother’s new wife, home to meet the family.

And then there’s memoir. Every memoir, including my own, is a detailed explanation of how people act in a group, told by someone who doesn’t quite want to believe what he’s saying.

SOMETHING GOOD comes out of all of this: once you have the courage to look at the secrets your secret-keeping machine is keeping, you can gain tremendous energy for writing. I’m oversimplifying, but Laing defines the operation of repression as deliberately forgetting what little Johnny did to his pet rabbits, deliberately forgetting that there were rabbits, forgetting that you’ve forgotten what little Johnny did, and forgetting what you’ve forgotten he did it to. Depending on what little Johnny did to the rabbits in the first place, these forgetting-that-you’ve-forgotten operations can have layers upon layers. They’re invisible, but their presence is discernable in a manner similar to the way astronomers discern the presence of black holes. There’s a distinct borderline where enormous amounts of energy disappear.

One job for the writer in your family is to release that secret-keeping energy so parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles can use it to escape from their cells in the family prison. But only if they want to.

The job is dangerous and frightening because we look at the family for our final survival—probably as a result of a million years or so of bad children being tossed out into the darkness beyond the camp?re. We can’t just reject our families, no matter how much they have hurt us, no matter if, as Laing says, “The family’s function is to repress Eros; to induce a false consciousness of security; to deny death by avoiding life; to cut off transcendence; to believe in God, not to experience the Void; to create in short, one dimensional [humans].”

Even with all the semicolons, most people will choose to belong to a family and lose all but the most boring dimensions of themselves rather than face the loss of the family camp?re.

Writers who face that blank screen know what it’s like to be kicked out of the family circle. It’s lonely. It’s cold. It’s dangerous.

But it’s a place of freedom, and if you’re lucky, you can use that freedom to tell a secret. When you tell that secret, you get back a little bit of power, and with that power—it’s the power to tell the simple truth—you can tell another secret and gain more power and that power can result in poems and plays and novels and memoirs and sometimes in angry letters and even suicide notes if the poems and plays and novels and memoirs don’t work out. It’s a dangerous business that writers choose to be in.

One way of looking at your task as a writer is to drag your family kicking and screaming into your experience, rather than having them provide your experience for you and tell you what it means. When you look at it this way, and look at the other things I’ve told you in this chapter, it’s possible to conclude that the writer and the writer’s family are natural enemies. That’s right. But as in other instances of Mutually Assured Destruction, peace, cooperation, and even the exchange of ambassadors are possible.

YOU HAD NO CHOICE about what your family inscribed upon you when you were two or three. But if you’re a writer, you have the ability to write down those inscriptions and think about them and play with them. In doing so, it’s possible to examine which parts of you are truly your own and which parts still belong to your family. Over time, you can increase the proportion of what is your own. Striking a blow for human freedom begins in your own heart, with your own blank screen, doing your own sorting between you and not you, and finding out what you brought to the table, and what was brought to the table for you.

Rules for Writers

Ten Fun Family Facts for Writers
1. Families are secret-keeping machines.
2. Families don’t like trouble-makers.Writers tell family secrets. Therefore, writers are trouble-makers.
3. Every family has a hastily invented alibi for being the way it is, one that’s full of holes if you look closely at it.
4. Usually you can write things you wouldn’t dare do. But in families, you can do things you wouldn’t dare write.
5. A family will fight to stay true to its idea of itself, even at the expense of the people in it.
6. Writing will put you outside of the family, looking in. But it’ll only feel like you’re going to die.
7. Your family has taught you how people behave in a group.
8. American League Baseball teams have designated hitters. Families have designated crazy people. As a writer, you won’t even have to raise your hand.
9. Families don’t read books. You will not get to listen to a discussion of your book during Thanksgiving Dinner, unless you’ve written a book on turkeys. Don’t write a book on turkeys.
10. Your family, no matter how full of pathology, is a gift to your art.

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To learn more about MFA in a Box, click HERE.


More Excerpts:

Excerpt 1: The “Introduction” from MFA in a Box

Excerpt 2: “Rules for Writers” from Chapter 1 (Each chapter of MFA in a Box ends with ten “Rules for Writers.” Here’s a sample, from the end of Chapter 1.)


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