21 October 2013

The Stories That Await

David Sedaris has a piece about his family in the latest edition of The New Yorker magazine. (It's here if you want to take a look. A good read.)  He's been a favorite writer of mine for a long time. His writing regularly reduces me to helpless, hearty laughter -- even if I'm surrounded by
strangers on a commuter train -- and then, sometimes in the next line of writing, evokes personal memories so vividly that hot tears stream down my cheeks.

In this latest piece, Now We Are Five, he writes about the recent death by suicide of his sister, Tiffany, and reminisces about family vacations at the beach when they were children. He is a keen observer of human behavior with a pitch-perfect ear for speech patterns and an unsentimental eye. As always, the narrative is distinguished by his ability to infuse accurate reportage with compassion and humor.

Among the many under-developed aspects of my own writing, I am still learning how to write about "hard" things without sounding cold and judgmental. Sedaris does this so well. He seems to see people clearly, flaws and all, while retaining affection for them. (I realize as I write this that I almost always lose all feelings of affection when I enter Critic mode.)

To date, an awareness of this skill deficit has been a primary reason I've avoided attempting any "full disclosure" writing about my biological family. I am inspired by Now We Are Five. My recollections of family vacations are vague but memories of alliances and oft-repeated parental retorts and inside jokes are much clearer. As well, much of the emotional narrative from childhood remains intact. Herein lies the problem:  intense emotional pain, those psychic spaces that still ooze and ache, makes it difficult to tell stories with affection and humor. Much of the work of healing has been accomplished but there remain a few perceived injuries to forgive.

A greater obstacle to writing a "come clean" piece on my family is Shame (and I note an associated shame that arises with that admission...). I am ashamed that my family is not "perfect" -- even while suffering no illusion that such a thing exists.

I am ashamed to be the "black sheep" of my family, ashamed of the stories that reveal how I earned the title and of other stories that attest to the influence of that title on the behavior of my siblings, my parents and myself. I am ashamed of how long I've clung to the title...

I identified with Sedaris' anecdotal descriptions of Tiffany's life. Though our high school personalities were direct opposites -- hers as a party girl and mine as a bookish, goody-two-shoes -- adulthood for both of us was in some ways a falling away from those personalities. I can imagine her, like me, viewing the devolution with a mixture of regret and nostalgia. The story of that fall (not to mention an exposé of the stressful paradox of living simultaneously as  "black sheep" and  "goody two shoes") has lived in me as a broiling potential for a long time but Shame -- so many people still alive who "knew me when"...what would they say/think? -- blocks the way in.

Sometimes, thinking about the stories of The Fall and My Family, is like approaching a battered, locked door at the top of the stairs; with the key in my hand and my ear pressed to it, I hear howls and whispers and giggling...and jump away, startled, when something heavy hits the door from the inside and run back down the stairs.

And other times, like today, after reading Sedaris' good writing, I have the sense that telling these stories is the Road Home or the Road to Freedom. As though,  telling these stories -- plumbing the depths, opening the door at the top of the stairs, coming "clean" -- is a kind of final frontier; and after the stories are written I'll be able to get on with my Life in those places where I've been stuck.

Sometimes I feel there's a whole universe of writing that will not be available to me until The Fall and My Family are written.

I am not the writer that Sedaris is and our stories are different; still, I seek to lean toward the compassionate, affectionate voice that he employs. I know intellectually that I am already free and that all the old wars are over. His story in The New Yorker points the way toward the clearing where I take the cleansing breaths that extend the wisdom of my intellect to my heart.