Risky Writing: The Story I Always Tell and Never TellBy Gina Frangello
November 04, 2010
There is a story I like to gloss over but rarely really tell. The short version goes like this. Soon after my first novel, My Sister’s Continent, was published (while I was almost 9 months pregnant with my son, Giovanni), my mother-in-law stopped speaking to me because she was so appalled by the graphic sexual content of the book. As the story goes—in the glib, cocktail-party version—she refused to even visit Giovanni after his birth. Although it’s not a “nice” anecdote, this story frequently gets laughs from those who hear it, especially the part about how, every time her ire began to wear off, my mother-in-law would apparently reread my book so as to outrage herself anew. She studied it as if for a test, it seems. My closest reader may well have been my novel’s biggest detractor.
We only started speaking again because she was diagnosed with cancer six months later. “Then I had to suck it up and contact her, or I would not just be pervy but also heartless,” I might finish the story, though that part would be more likely to be greeted with awkward silence than laughter.
The cocktail party version of the story leaves out rather a lot, of course. It leaves out the way my mother-in-law screamed at my husband on the telephone almost daily in the weeks leading up to our son’s birth, and even in the hospital hours after my C-section, then two days later, when we’d first brought Giovanni home. It leaves out the way our stomachs lurched every time the phone rang. It leaves out that she insinuated that—because of the sexual abuse themes in the novel—I could be abusing our five-year-old twin daughters: an allegation made as though this were a reasonable conclusion, as though Agatha Christie must be a murderer and Stephen King a kidnapper of injured writers or the owner of a possessed car. When finally pried from the notion that I was a sexual predator, my mother-in-law then deduced that my parents must have abused me, and pronounced them “evil people,” turning her attention to railing against them on the telephone whenever my husband actually took her calls. It leaves out the fact that our daughters had previously been close to their grandmother, and had no explanation for why she did not call or see them for half a year. It leaves out the part about how little I thought, during those months, of the joys of giving birth, so consumed was I with a sense of toxic outrage like battery acid spilling everywhere into my life.
So tormented by this internal rage and anxiety were my husband and I that we actually talked to a local pastor about our feelings (separately, I should add; I think we were both mildly embarrassed to be seeking “spiritual help,” which is not generally our collective or individual bag.) I remember talking with a close woman friend about how toxic the anger felt to me, how I didn’t know how people lived with grudges because of the way they eat away at the soul. My friend, more practiced in the fine art of anger and grudge-holding than I, rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, what you’re describing is just a typical day for me at work, or having to deal with the cashiers at Best Buy.”
Maybe she was right. All around me, people seemed not to be speaking to family members or ex-spouses, seemed to be carrying out private wars with the members of their academic departments or a nemesis from their office. Perhaps I was just not cut out for this anger thing. And though my mother-in-law had not asked for my “forgiveness” (or contacted me at all), eventually I resolved to forgive her, for my own mental health. I had come to the realization that Stephen Elliott talks about in The Adderall Diaries, wherein even if anger is utterly justified, who is it hurting? It may, in fact, have been hurting my mother-in-law. But I became unwilling to suffer great pain myself just to ensure that she suffer it too.
Before I could call her and essentially offer forgiveness for something she may not have wished forgiven, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Stage IV, inoperable breast cancer. Is it absurd, then, to admit that I rarely told anyone that I had already decided to reapproach her before she took ill? Perhaps I was a bit shamed by the fact. Perhaps I feared it would have made me look simpering or weak. Swallowing all that hurt, all that rage, all that sense of being misunderstood and attacked, simply because I couldn’t cope with conflict did not seem like something a “strong” person would do. But once she was sick, everyone seemed to realize that of course I needed to make nice for the sake of the family, and so I contacted her, and she meekly apologized for her “extreme behavior about the book,” and that was the last we ever spoke of the matter.
This is not an essay about forgiveness. Others with more at stake than a vitriolic mother-in-law have written more eloquently on that matter than I could here.
This is not an essay about the grave risks of writing. Imprisoned writers in China, in Nigeria, would like to have to field my mother-in-law’s scandalized phone calls.
What I know a little something about could only be called the interpersonal consequences of trying to write with emotional honesty. The way we writers stretch ourselves out on the line, inviting grudges, inviting a fight. The way I discovered I hated to fight (how had this happened? I’d kicked my share of little-girl-ass back in the hood when I was a kid. But my temper, it seemed, had been “gentrified,” and I realized, more than anything else, that I had left the environment of my youth not for a bigger house or even an advanced degree, but because I wanted to be able to live without violence) . . . yet even this being true, I would continue to put my neck out to the blade of others’ criticism or anger when writing. I would continue to write as if everyone I had ever known was already dead, even though they were not, and even knowing there could be reckoning.
Everything that matters burns.
I believe that. On the page and in life.
I resist, too, a limited definition of risk, of emotional intensity, that implies a “domesticated” life is a bland life–that marriage and motherhood is equivalent to giving up the burn. Because there is no greater risk than loving something more than you love yourself, be it a political cause or a child. I can promise all the young, wild people out there that living a life of intensity does not end when you stop going home with strange men, stop snorting coke in the bathroom of the club, stop starving or cutting yourself, stop sleeping on the floor of the overnight train or ferry on which nobody speaks English, stop living in the squat, stop letting somebody tie you up who probably shouldn’t be trusted to drive a golf cart. I can promise that self-destruction or partying or adventure is but the surface of risk, and that bigger risks happen later, when you have more than your own body on the line and still dare not to numb out and cloister yourself inward to maintain the illusion of safety.
But I digress.
Writing is risk. If you don’t feel that when you’re writing, for god’s sake stop. It’s a shitty job. Give it up if you can.
It takes a hell of a lot more than risk to be a good and relevant writer, and I’m not sure writers can judge whether our own work has merit in any way other than what it does for us emotionally. How “good” we are is for others to decide. But I know from the inside out that risk is the basic, lowest-common-denominator prerequisite. If you aren’t offending anybody, may I suggest you aren’t doing it right?
Still, it is perhaps understandable that when my second book, the collection Slut Lullabies, was accepted for publication, David and I did not mention it to his family. This, you see, is one of the perks of being an underpaid independent press writer: I could rest assured that my mother-in-law was not likely to hap upon my book while watching The Today Show or strolling around her local Target. I knew I was going to have a few other people to answer to when the collection came out, but this time, I planned for my mother-in-law not to be among them. Planning a multi-city book tour and Facebooking and Tweeting about Slut Lullabies within an inch of my life (while ignoring FB friend requests from David’s father and uncle), I planned to simply never let my husband’s side of the family know the book even existed.
As it turns out, my cocktail party story gets progressively less funny from here.
Almost 4 years to the day of her cancer diagnosis, my mother-in-law died, just days prior to my Chicago release party for Slut Lullabies. To the best of my knowledge, she indeed never knew of its existence.
Uh. Mission accomplished?
One task of fiction writers is to get inside the heads of their characters. We are the analysts of imaginary people. Writers approach this in different ways. Some, of the organized, Type A variety, may hang bulletin boards on the walls of their offices, with index cards, magazine pictures, notes or diagrams tacked up: things that remind them of their characters like the type of car X drives and the names of Q’s childhood pets, in sequence. Other writers approach the invasion of their characters’ psyches with less deliberation, hearing dialogue in their heads or simply obsessing about a character so endlessly that every drive, every trip to a store, every song on the radio “reminds” the writer of her new imaginary friends. Some of us are all but method actors. But however we approach our characters, in the end we must know them better than we know our closest friends—better than we know our longtime lovers. Our characters are permitted no secrets from us. If they secretly fantasize about someone else while in bed with their spouses, we know every nuance—certainly more than we can possibly say about the people in our real lives. If a character has some quirky way of slicing an apple, some phobia of driving on the highway, we understand this tic to the last detail, even if not all these revelations make it to the page.
We know what haunts them. What drives them. What they believe about themselves and don’t want anyone else to know. Risk entails writing what scares you most—pushing beyond the perimeters of just telling a story via plot and pretty words, and instead reaching something deeper, more frightening and profound. Write until it hurts, and if you don’t bleed a little, it isn’t worth much.
Of course, as Ann Beattie once wrote, “Pain is relative.” For some writers, exploring social anxiety at a party or the threat of parental disapproval can feel like walking straight into a war zone.
Others have to push a little harder to get to the blood.
What was it in my novel that terrified my mother-in-law? What disturbed her so profoundly that she could not bring herself to meet her new grandson and made her husband drive six hours alone to see us?
My Sister’s Continent is a work of fiction, not a memoir that revealed our “family secrets.” Further, it was a contemporary retelling of a Freud case study, not likely to be read as “autobiographical” even to the extent that some fiction is, due to its confinement to the perimeters of certain details of that original Freud case.
So no. Although it might be the easiest and cleanest explanation, I do not believe my mother-in-law despised and feared My Sister’s Continent because she thought it reflected poorly on the family—because I had embarrassed them or made them “look bad.” I do not even think it was because she believed (truly, deep down) that I was either a violent person or the damaged victim of some evil perpetrator. For a number of years, I wanted to believe she was that narrow, that literal (incapable of understanding the concept of fiction, or art in general) because I was angry. But my mother-in-law had a master’s degree in psychology. She was a professional woman, and though not “artsy,” reasonably well-read. So while it would be satisfying on one level to reduce her this way, in the end it would be facile.
My mother-in-law read my novel like a woman haunted. When the fever of her rage began to ebb, she would turn to the pages again, poring over them to re-open the wound. Something on those pages had cut her, and deeply. Her outrage was her shell of armor: her defense.
My novel’s greatest detractor may also have been the person impacted by it most deeply—so deeply that she was unable to look at it as merely “fiction.” And ironically, isn’t this what writers are striving for: to transport the reader so completely into the world of the book that its dangers are real and the reader at risk?
When somebody dies, a dialogue becomes a monologue. Upon my mother-in-law’s death, I was left with more questions than answers. Yet, paradoxically, what once seemed the most devastating behavior ever directed at me by another woman now seems a strange kind of compliment . . . if not a compliment I sought or wanted. And so, I am left with pieces of a whole—stories I’ve heard about her childhood and early married life from my husband’s father; what I know of her parents—with which to reconstruct the possibilities for that volatile combustion. The real woman who was my husband’s mother becomes elusive, unquantifiable, now that she no longer draws breath. She becomes a character I try to decipher.
I see her reading my novel a second time, knowing the blood the first read drew. Why?
I will never know.
But I can imagine. Because this is what writers do. And in the same way we must seek to find something with which to identify in the most dangerous of our characters—something, even, to love—so imagining the things that cut me and the things that cut her, my frightened and relentless reader, as two sides of the same knife brings a strange sort of closure.
This is an exquisitely written piece, Gina.
I can’t imagine how awful and bewildering her reaction to your book must have been for you. I can’t imagine why your book disturbed her in such a way.
I have had similar experiences with in-laws – not because I wrote something they didn’t like – but simply because they didn’t like me. It angered me to the point of obsession and I spent a lot of fruitless time trying to understand why they might hate me so and trying to make them think differently. In the end, I simply gave up on trying to convince them that I was a decent enough person and ignored them.
I’m interested to know how your mother in law’s reaction to you impacted on your own marriage?
For me, it caused a massive wedge in my own relationship that was irreparable.
I agree that writing is a risk. Often when I post something my heart beats fast and do a mental checklist of who may be offended by my piece. I have lost family members and some friends over my writing which still stings, but I feel justified because what I wrote was true. What I wrote was about me. What I wrote was so incredibly difficult for me, but I didn’t shy away from painful topics. I stand by my writing. I wish it hadn’t turned out the way it did, but then I realise I am not responsible for others reactions to it.
There are many things I would like to write about, but I don’t. For fear of exposing too much. But for me, I have to write about painful topics to release them from own heart. People who truly love me understand this. People who don’t, use my writing as an excuse to despise me.
I think you are right about forgiveness. It must be horrible to react in such a terrible way, as your mother in law did. I can’t imagine the unhappiness it takes to cause yourself such torment.
I’m glad you forgave. It’s a big thing to be able to do. You have such a wonderful heart.
Somehow, I seem to have heard only part of the short version before.
I would have been devastated by this vitriol by your mother-in-law. Especially since it involved your three children and your beloved husband.
It’s good to know that you could come to a peace with it all.
I don’t think it would be so easy for me, even though I know anger only hurts the person who is angry.
You are a stronger woman than I, I think.
Irene, while this is a beautiful compliment coming from you, I don’t believe for a minute that there are many women out there stronger than you are. It’s much easier to find the strength in things other people do than to find the strength in what we ourselves do. I’ve been through some difficult things in my life, but nothing that I would consider remotely on par with what you experienced when losing one of your twin daughters, being forbidden in both spoken and unspoken ways to grieve your lost baby by everyone from medical professionals to the husband you love, and then raising the lost baby’s identical twin . . . talk about risk. The risk of loving that new baby even though you knew how great a loss was possible; the risk of forgiving and understanding the people who tried to prevent your grief “for your own good.” If I live to be 100 I’ll never forget the piece you wrote about that part of your life. A pissed off mother-in-law is very low on the scale of life’s troubles. Realizing that I have the ability to forgive was an important realization, but as painful as all this was, I hope I never fully lost sight of how lucky I was to have just given birth to a healthy baby (after all my years of infertility, a prior miscarriage), and to have a husband who backed me up (see my later comment to Zara, which I meant to include after Zara’s comment but sometimes shit just turns up in the wrong places on these boards . . .
High praise, coming from you, and I thank you.
“Nevermore” was really hard to write, but I’m glad I finally did it.
“The Crucifixion” below, was also hard to open up and spill out and there’s that pushing of the “publish” button, ever a mountain so high in some cases.
You are far better than I at opening yourself up to scrutiny.
It scares the blood right out of my veins.
The breath right out of my lungs.
How did you ever get so brave?
I don’t know about bravery, but I do know that I tend to have great faith in the written word and the people who bother to engage in reading it. There are some oddballs out there who troll sites like TNB just to criticize, but I tend to believe, in a very core way, that people who read these sorts of sites and essays are people looking to broaden their own perspectives, to engage in constructive and supportive dialogue, who care about words and about people. In this way, I often think of the written word as a far more protected/protective community than one’s lived life. I guess I trust READERS more than I trust most people. The writing itself often gets my heart pounding, but the sharing of it less so in some ways if that makes sense.
Of course, as many have pointed out, we are a love fest here at TNB! Especially for you, Irene, our multi-talented, alternately dark/poignant/hilarious den mother! This place wouldn’t be the same without you–I think you’re always safe with us.
I find it amazing that the writing makes your heart pound but the publishing does not!
It is precisely the reverse for me.
I suppose I should learn not to make broad assumptions based on myself, seeing as I’m only barely approaching sanity.
You are the sweetest!
Next time you do Chicago, I’d love to come again.
If only to see you and talk some more.
Oh, I bought “Slut Lullabies” twice.
So now someone else has a copy who wasn’t expecting it.
Haven’t read it yet, though, but I will.
Fabulous, Irene! I’d love to know who ends up with the “extra” copy! Thanks for gifting me!
Got any other relatives that need a good goosing?
I could get another one and send it to them!
(Oh, I am such a troublemaker!)
This is an amazing essay, Gina. I can only imagine how painful it must have been to endure this while you were pregnant and after the baby was born. I’m sorry.
My first assumption about your mother-in-law was ignorance or a generational thing. I received a letter from a great aunt who gently chided me about the language and graphic scenes in my first novel, but she also congratulated me for having published it. I’ll never understand high drama among family members when it comes to something like this. Aren’t there bigger problems to worry about?
But after you described her educational background, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened in her own life to make her react this way.
Oh, Zara, so wonderful for the first comment to be from you, because I know how much of yourself you put into your writing and how well you understand the nature of this kind of thing.
You know, what happened with David’s mother was difficult for our marriage, but not because we “disagreed” on her behavior. David had a very turbulent, painful history with his mother, both individually in his childhood and then also later, with every woman he was ever involved with, all of whom his mother attacked repeatedly in myriad ways. So this episode didn’t come out of thin air. She had a drinking problem that spanned her entire adult life, pretty much, and she had many issues that made it hard for her to get along with other women.
That said, she was also a formidably intelligent person, who struggled mightily to overcome some of the damages done to her in her own childhood, and to lead a more civil, loyal life than the one she had come out of . . . she did not always succeed 100%, but she did succeed in some crucial ways that illustrated the strength and heart she could have when she chose to. There were good sides to her, too.
The unhappiness this caused in our relationship really had to do with how much old pain David’s mom behavior dredged up for David, and how much stress, anger and resentment it caused me to have her acting this way about me and my work and my parents. David and I were a wholly united front in terms of what we thought of her actions, but we both became very unhappy people during this period, in different ways. We were both hunted and haunted by what was going on, and people who are miserable and bitter do not make for very good spouses, even if they agree on the things they’re upset about.
Add in some post-pregnancy hormones, and we were quite the disaster.
When she took ill, we jumped from the frying pan to the fire. It all, in truth, took several years to work through . . .
Thank you, Richard. You know, there were moments that seemed almost comedic, even at the time. I mean, I had just come from my C-section and literally couldn’t even feel my legs yet, and there was David on his cell phone with his mother hollering at him in the hospital corridor. There were times when it was almost too absurd to be painful.
Other times, no. I had a difficult pregnancy. There were heart complications (mine, not the baby’s) and I spent most of the last month of my pregnancy running to cardiologists and hooked up to Holter monitors. My heart rate was often 155 for days on end for no reason anyone could ascertain. I’d had double pneumonia and was hospitalized for a week, and my heart just didn’t seem to “recover.” Everyone was afraid for the baby’s safety, and mine. Then he was breech. There was a lot of drama, and some real physical risk to both me and to Giovanni. To say that I did not need the additional stess my mother-in-law was providing is a great understatement.
Unfortunately, I think she had some real reasons for her response, if very misguided ones. My own theories on this are a constant reminder to me that people need to process and deal with their own shit, or it spills onto other people in ways that can be violent. A wronged person usually considers her/himself the victim, but people who can’t move past their own wounds almost invariably can cause great pain to others, victimizing them in turn. It’s a viscious cycle.
The female protagonist in my first (“practice”) novel was based in part on several ex-girlfriends. One of said exes got ahold of a copy of the manuscript via a mutual friend. She’s not speaking to me any more, despite it being a largely flattering portrayal.
Likewise, some of the pieces I’ve written here about my abusive childhood have raised the ire of most of my family, to the point where I am now more or less the black sheep. I don’t get invited to Thanksgiving anymore, not that I’d go. Do I regret it? Not one bit. It’s my prerogative as an artist to draw whatever I want from my experiences in making my art.
One of the credos I’ve stuck to lately is this: the people who cry “don’t judge me!” the loudest are almost always the one’s who’ve already failed to live up to their own standards, and the quickest to offer judgement in turn. So like you, I have to wonder what exactly it was in your book that touched your mother-in-law so deeply. Because to sit there and re-read it like that…seems like an act of self-punishment. Hope she was able to lay some of those demons to rest before she passed.
Your account of what happened with your mother-in-law, and how you moved from a myriad of ‘negative’ emotions ‘happening to you’, to a state of forgiveness, was humbling to read. I love the raw honesty you display in your writings. I love that you write from the heart with seemingly no fear.
This was fascinating from an observer’s perspective and like you, I want to know why? What happened to make your mother-in-law react in such a hostile way to your book. To reread the book to reignite her anger – why? What had happened in her life that triggered this reaction?
Your writing took me to the point where I also have compassion for her – this does not negate the terrible abuse and disrespect she showered upon you and your husband and family – but something happened to her and I feel so very sad that this woman (who had a Masters in Psychology!) could not get past it enough, to be able to welcome her grandson into the world.
“When somebody dies, a dialogue becomes a monologue. Upon my mother-in-law’s death, I was left with more questions than answers.”
So true. Death being so final takes away any chance we may have ever had of knowing, of having our questions answered. But the reality is, would the questions have been answered if death had not happened. Probably not.
One of the most odd and fascinating parts of all this is how people respond this way to fiction in addition to nonfiction. I mean, honestly, the only nonfiction I really ever write is here on TNB. I’m far and away more of a fiction writer. While my fiction has certain autobiographical strains, as all fiction does, it generally is quite “fictionalized” and it never intended as memoir, either real or thinly veiled. I mean, I certainly would agree that someone who has abused a child has little right to snark and gripe if the child later writes about it, and that we all own our own lives and material, for art or any damn purpose we choose . . . but of course I can also understand why it is never a joy to be “written about” in a literal manner, with one’s own name used, a piece labeled nonfiction, etc. If some ex of mine wrote a piece about “Gina Frangello” on the internet, I would probably be pretty weirded out, too. So it’s not that I don’t get it.
But it’s fiction! No one even loosely based on my mother-in-law appeared in my novel.
Yeah, I think dark writing can simply trigger people, in terms of the dark matter of their own lives. I don’t presume that it was a literal translation (i.e. What happened in my novel must have happened to my mother-in-law when she was young.) Life is often not that literal. But it touched off something, and whatever that thing was seemed to have been something she’d spent a lot of energy running from, and hated me for putting under her nose, and then couldn’t tear herself away from the emotional car wreck of it all. There is tragedy to it, to be sure. I, too, hope she found some peace. We were on comfortable terms with her at the time of her death, and this is a big relief to me.
Jude, you’re utterly correct: a good friend of mine just lost his mother earlier this week, and we were discussing this. It’s incredibly sad when somebody dying with “unfinished business” or “unanswered questions” is less because their death was premature (even if it was), and more because they were simply not someone with whom a certain level of open communication was possible, and for whom that was gravely unlikely to change no matter how long they lived.
My father-in-law has spoken a lot to us, since the death, about the great sadness he has about how issues my mother-in-law couldn’t overcome influenced her life in such profound ways. All her intellect was not able to heal her, or enable her to let go. That ability, I suspect, comes from a different place.
I agree. Healing comes from the heart not the intellect.
Hat’s off to you, first of all, for being brave enough to write it in the first place.
I have shelved or dismissed I don’t know how many ideas because I thought they would get me into some kind of trouble or another.
That spectral, looming sense of impending judgment. It barely matters whose or for what. It’s not a fear of honesty, or a lack of confidence in my ability to do the writing. It’s the prospect of doing the work and having that rejected. Not by an editor or a publisher but by someone I know and/or care about as a matter of how it reflects on me personally, or for fear I may hurt or offend someone. Somehow. Who knows how. This shouldn’t matter to me, of all people, but it does.
My nightmare, for example, is having someone approach me and go, “I read that book of yours. That so-and-so. That’s ME, isn’t it? You think I’m _____? Is that what you think?”
I’m not scared of the confrontation, really, but that the person might be right. And that character will be him or her. And I will suffer such severe cognitive dissonance over my intense impulses to tell the truth and my reflexive, defensive urge to offer some writerly cover story that I will simply have a stroke and tip over dead.
I don’t want to die!!!
(How’m I doing with the catastrophic thinking? Good? This is good, sound logic, right?)
Well, sadly Becky, that logic IS pretty sound.
I mean, I pretty much had some exact such scenarios with various stories in Slut Lullabies.
These weren’t dramatic family melodramas, or anyone calling us up raging. It was simply a matter of friends saying, “Wait–you think I . . .” and the fact being that there is no real way to “prove,” on the part of the writer, whether you fictionalized an emotion or idea, or whether it is what you really think, and knowing that even if you deny it, and even if you really DID fictionalize it, part of the person upon whom which such-and-such or so-and-so was based will always secretly wonder, suspect, and perhaps judge and feel hurt.
I am no damn good at censoring myself in advance about shit like that. I write like the world is on fire and the pages will burn first, followed by anyone who will ever read them, and nothing can ever be proven.
I write, in short, like a writer who for so many years tried–in vain–to publish a book that I, myself, had ceased to believe that my work would ever be published. I write like someone who never suspected in a million years that my writing might actually be READ.
Fast forward to now, and not only do I have 2 books out, but we all live in an online culture where it’s not so hard to publish, and it’s helluva easy for everyone who knows our names to find anything we’ve ever written online.
Yet I continue to write the same crazy, reckless way as ever.
Apparently I am not the sharpest tool in the shed. Bummer for me, and all the people I “borrow” to write about!
Ha. A scorched earth policy, then. Almost literally.
I can get behind that.
And I think I’ve done it. But I think that was when I was first learning to write and never honestly expected anyone to want to publish, let alone read, anything I was writing.
Now that I find myself in a position to put up or shut up, my drive towards marrow-sucking is curiously trumped by some frumpy, knuckle-biting scandinavian lady who loathes a “scene.”
Irony is cruel, cruel.
I think it’s age, too. In the stupid-scared-stupid sandwich that is life, I think I’m getting towards the middle.
Need to figure out how to get back to stupid. Or fast-forward ahead to it. Whatev.
Okay, I think the stupid-scared-stupid sandwich equation is one I am going to now forever overuse. It’s brilliant. Geez, that says it all, doesn’t it?
Yeah, in that sandwich, the stupid ends are a lot more fun . . .
This is a fascinating look at the how our writing effects us in the real world. And you have so many passages of beautifully constructed insight here, like this one.
“I can promise that self-destruction or partying or adventure is but the surface of risk, and that bigger risks happen later, when you have more than your own body on the line and still dare not to numb out and cloister yourself inward to maintain the illusion of safety.”
It’s writing like yours that, in and of itself, is a kind of triumph, over fear or pain or even just mediocrity or the small-mindedness of others. It makes a writer want to keep writing more. So thanks for this.
Thank you, Nate. I’m a little speechless, in a very good, flattered, humbled way.
Thanks for this, Gina. I related completely. Here’s a link to an article I wrote about it: http://www.themillions.com/2010/01/the-perils-of-fiction.html
My novel’s coming in March–and I haven’t given the family galleys. I wish they wouldn’t read it. But I’m bolstering myself.
I found that with Drift, I couldn’t have even predicted the reactions. Why censor the writing? Now I know that oftentimes it’s not even what I think will upset people that upsets them. So why cater to their imagined feelings.
I agree: worthwhile writing carries an element of risk.
I ended up losing friends with the last book–and it really surprised me, especially since they weren’t even “in” the book.
Victoria, wow, just read your Millions piece and I can only say that I wish we had known one another and been going through these things at the same time, as it seems we both deeply needed somebody with whom to commiserate about very similar situations.
I agree, too, that it’s impossible to predict ahead of time who will be most horrified by what. While I had struggled in my relationship with my mother-in-law, I was actually not the least bit worried she would be upset by the novel, which had nothing to do with her. Unlike many members of my own family, she had a graduate degree, was an active reader (if usually more like cozy mysteries.) I didn’t think she’d “like” the novel per se, but I didn’t think it would bother her except perhaps that she might consider it, blandly, “in bad taste,” in that British way of hers. In a million years I would never have thought her response would be so personal, so emotional, so over-the-top.
The few people I actually had worried would really be bothered by the novel never were in the least.
This one mom no longer smiles or says hello to me when we bump into each other–when I’m picking up my son from school, etc. She’d only been a friendly acquaintance from mutual mom circles; but, for some reason, it gets to me. I know it’s because of my book! That’s why I actually prefer to keep my writing world and my mom world separate–when that mom world doesn’t know about my writing.
I always had that philosophy too, V–when I was releasing my first novel, my daughters were in kindergarten so I had just met this new crop of moms, and I really didn’t talk to them much about it or invite them to any of my readings. One ended up reading the novel, and although she liked it she talked a lot about how racy and disturbing it was, and would tell the other moms that, and I thought it was embarrassing and worried what they all must think of me.
Now, with my daughters in fifth grade, I’ve gotten to know the moms a lot better over the years. Most of them are not “like” me in the sense that they don’t really belong to or feel affiliated with an arts community and a lot are stay at home moms and I guess what you’d call pretty “mainstream” women. But they’re all college educated (sometimes more: doctors, lawyers) and most of them are politically progressive, and this time around, when Slut Lullabies came out, I decided what the hell and invited them to everything I did locally and told them all about the book. Part of me was a little terrified . . .
They turned out to be incredibly supportive. Not only did a whole slew of them come to my release party, but they also chose my book for the mom’s book club and had me come in and talk to them about it, and it was a fabulous discussion. I got a little ribbing for the title and the nipple on the front cover (!), but really for the most part these women were far more sophisticated and accepting than I had given them credit for. In being afraid they’d judge me, I was apparently judging them.
Not to say that some people might not be creepy about it. There may be women who do secretly think ill of me, and I just haven’t noticed. And certainly there were many who never did choose to come to an event or read the book, and in some cases it may be because they don’t like “that kind” of content . . .
But I do feel like Moms in general are so encouraged to put on formal, uber-polite, superficial faces in this society that it can be hard for mothers to penetrate each other’s shells and get to the real person underneath. I feel like sharing my book with some of these moms helped all of us see each other in a new light of being women long before we were mothers, and having more in common than we do differences.
I shouldn’t focus on the negative! I did have lots of supportive Moms as well. And come to think of it, I could’ve predicted this particular mom’s reaction. I’m remembering our last conversation, and she was telling me about how Journey’s song lyric were veiled encouragements for prostitution, or some such thing. I think it was the song “Don’t Stop Believing.” At the time, I thought she was joking.
But I drew the line when one of my mom friends wanted to put an announcement in the PTA bulletin. My boys were in grade school at the time of the release. My oldest is in 7th now, youngest in 5th. I don’t want my writing to hurt them–they didn’t choose to have a mom that writes. I guess I want to have my cake and eat it too–I don’t want to offend anyone; I want to be universally liked, yet I want to write about subject matter that’s bound to offend people.
OMG, Victoria, that Journey comment just made me spit out a little coffee! That’s freaking classic. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that woman would not be a fan of either of our work . . .
PTA bulletin: no.
Inviting all the cooler moms you know to your book party, and letting them buy your book and talk it up to their friends: absolutely yes!
(I have twin fifth graders too. Too bad we don’t live closer. We could form a weird-writer-mom clique and scare all the prissy moms.)
I find myself fascinated by the central mystery:
“My mother-in-law read my novel like a woman haunted. When the fever of her rage began to ebb, she would turn to the pages again, poring over them to re-open the wound. Something on those pages had cut her, and deeply. Her outrage was her shell of armor: her defense.”
It certainly makes sense that you left, completely innocently, some knife sticking out of the narrative, which cut her, and I guess if so perhaps that’s a great compliment, a compliment painful in its realization; a line drawn from you to Zeuxis, who according to legend painted grapes so realistically that birds flew about to peck at the image of fruit (sadly in this case seems the bird wanted to peck your eyes out, eh?).
On the other hand, did she read the book looking for a weapon? Did she invest into the book when she turned the first page all the resentments she had already saved up for her daughter-in-law? Did she almost have a pang of triumph when she seized upon the “pervy” discovery. Was it a loud “A HA” that echoed across all those miserable phone calls?
Either way, I do offer my condolences for the pain, and for the savage complications of the events that followed. What an awful millstone to be lain around your neck as a new-again mother.
Yes, Uche, I think both things are true, in a way.
There was no way my mother-in-law would have liked the book . . . she would have found something to judge, something with which to dismiss me. One of her favorite pastimes was to pretend I was not particularly bright. She was rather invested in this game. She liked it because it meant she could dismiss me, but she also liked it because it made her believe I was harmless. She was very, very anxious around other women. She could only feel comfortable if she was entirely assured of the other woman’s subordinate position, I believe, and she worked very hard–out of motivations both good and bad–to put me in that role. She needed me to be there if she was to be able to have a relationship with me without utter panic, perhaps, and she did want the relationship, certainly with her son and grandchildren if not with me directly, and so she worked overtime to put me in a box that would enable her to be around the people she loved. She also liked to think I was unintelligent simply because she didn’t like other women. I rarely saw her credit another woman with having much of a brain. Part of this schtick was self-preservation and insecurity, but sure, there was also an element of good old-fashioned malice.
And so I had expected her to dismiss my book. To claim it was not well-written, that it was immature or some such, that it was gaudy, low-class or in bad taste in its overt sexuality. Perhaps pretentious, as in “she’s trying hard to prove she’s smart because she really isn’t.” All of that, absolutely, I anticipated. I had expected her to treat my life’s work as a trifle, as a little hobby at which I was not particularly good. That would have been her way.
Instead, she lost all control. She went over the top, sabotaging her relationship with her grandchildren and even, for a time, her marriage, because of my book. I believe it’s safe to say that she would never in a million years have wanted my novel to have such power over her. Her fanatical behavior went in stark opposition to every way she had tried, for 15 years, to “dismiss” me. In the end it became about HER, and the more true this was, the harder she tried to make it about me.
The mysterious alchemy of how and why she, instead of trivializing my novel, allowed it to take over her entire life for half a year, will of course never be entirely known.
Bravo, Gina. Great, great piece.
Grazie, kind sir.
Where’s that astrology piece? The masses are hungry over here . . .
Next week is Astrology Week, in honor of the 3.0 anniversary.
(And I’m sending you a longer comment later).
Well now, that’s the best news I’ve heard all day!
Wow. That is an awful lot of bitterness and anger to deal with at what should be one of the happiest times of your life. Bitterness is a horrible disease. I try to avoid these types of people as much as possible.
I have often wondered how friends and family react to what writers write. I suspect some relations don’t fare to well. But, man. This behavior from your MIL is extremely bizarre.
Thanks for sharing Gina. I appreciate your boldness and bravery.
Thank you, Lorna.
Yeah, bitterness. It’s such a scary thing, isn’t it? Few people go around saying or thinking of themselves, “Damn, I sure am bitter.” It seems something that can only be seen clearly from the outside.
I definitely try to remember that my MIL was getting progressively, terminally worse with malignent-but-undiagnosed cancer during the entire time she was busy carrying on this feud. Among the many other factors that may have led to her over-reaction, there was also the fact that she was losing radical amounts of weight rather inexplicably, feeling progressively weak and exhausted, and dealing with the fact that she knew inside that something was terribly “wrong,” but fear keeping her away from the doctor’s office.
Essentially, she was living from deep within her own narrative, her own skin. While the things she did hurt me, she was living a life that was about herself, not about me. I interpret her behavior in terms of how it impacted me. But there were dramas going on in her narrative that were larger than my novel, even if she was “using” my novel in a way to keep those bigger demons–whether of cancer or of her past–at bay.
I thought the paragraph about risk not being confined to youthful self-destruction to be particularly astute, Gina. In fact, I think very few people write good sentences about those experiences until they’re well past being defined by them. As to the matter of offending or sheltering family from one’s writing, I intend to give Slut Lullabies to all my dowager aunts and meathead cousins for Christmas this year as a cloaking maneuver.
Sean, I’d love some guerilla marketing campaign wherein everyone had their most frumpy-or-Guido relatives pose for photos with SL!
For my novel coming out in 2012, which takes place in London, a Brit friend of mine gave the novel to his mum, to proof-read my Britishisms. So this proper English schoolteacher in her seventies was basically reading my novel about the squats-and-drug culture of the 1980s. Apparently she was scandalized in a good way, and kept calling them up to dish about the novel, all excited about what was happening in the plot. Was one of the nicest compliments I ever received, especially after the incident above!
This is an outstanding piece, Gina. I’m sorry you had this experience and that your husband and children were hurt by it, too. Yet I’m left with compassion for your mother-in-law, a woman so deeply wounded that she surrounded herself with chaos to avoid looking within. Her cancer emerges like a physical manifestation of what was emotionally eating her up inside.
I was afraid of what my family would think of my first novel. There are some adult themes, so to speak. Yet even my grandmothers remained supportive and respectful. I later learned from an aunt that my grandmother told her, regarding the mention of sex, “Well, that was educational.” I think I got lucky in this regard.
Reading your essay now–along with Irene’s piece a few minutes ago–gave me a boost to keep going with Novel #2. It’s NOT autobiographical in content, but it is very dark and brutal, something sure to strike nerves. This book has been very difficult to work on, but it wants to be born. I choose to believe that painful stories have a way of helping others through theirs.
As a writer, your story here helped me.
Ronlyn, I agree so completely with what you’re saying. I mean, of course not all novels will (or should) be dark, brutal, painful . . . literature should span all types of moods and states of being, from rhapsodic to despairing, from arousal to boredom, from bliss to pain, and all the shades of gray in between and the ways in which sometimes these states overlap in surprising ways. But I do believe that there is a particular need for literature that unsettles, challenges, provokes, disturbs.
I think of novels from Lolita to Book of Daniel to Beloved, and the work that has impacted me most greatly as a writer, and more importantly as a person, is usually work that is extremely disturbing in some way–that takes real risks with content, and required the writer to travel through very dark emotional terrain.
“So deeply wounded that she surrounded herself with chaos to avoid looking within.” This is such a beautiful and haunting line–it describes so many people on the planet, and accounts for so much pain in the world.
Hear, hear. How boring a world it would be if literature didn’t have the same emotional range as the humans who read it. And I’m right with you on how many people are suffering…
Gina, I grew up in a family so deeply entrenched with secrets that as a child when I was admonished to “tell the truth” about a broken vase in the living room, I remember wondering what version of the story of the broken vase would be the most acceptable truth to not get me punished. Generations anew my family still clings to their secrets and their versions of the truth and by that they create fresh secrets ensuring that the tradition of subterfuge continues. Imagine the reactions of this group of people when they discovered that I had a book published — what versions of their secrets have I chosen to tell? What secrets are mine and mine alone? Will they believe me when I say in all honesty that none of it — not a single word — is about any of them? Will they even care? Will it only matter now because I have the capacity to share the secrets?
When I was just out of college I went to work for a summer as a nanny for a family who I’d known since I was a child. Back then, the husband was married to my mother’s best friend. They had a daughter several years younger. When the husband fell in love with another woman, he left the wife and daughter and while his new wife knew of their existence, his three brand new children did not. When they hired me the wife took me for a walk and explained the situation to me, it was better, she said, if only for the sake of her children, that we pretend that some things never ever happened. I will never ever forget that conversation. As far as I know, these children, now adults, still do not know of the existence of their half sister.
Perhaps, that is why we write fiction.
This piece is fabulous, Gina, raw and honest and heartbreaking and captivating. Like you. xx ~ r
xx right back at you, Robin!
That story about the secret half-sister is pretty chilling. It’s fascinating the way every family has so many secrets, and yet each family seems to believe their secrets are the ones that can never be told. My extended family (which on my father’s side numbers more than 65 cousins) has many untold secrets too, and much that has been “reinvented” for the new generation. I don’t think of myself as a secret-keeper, and yet there are things I know, very big things, that I would never, ever write about, because they just aren’t mine to tell. But I know that when I see the truth buried in order to present a prettier multigenerational view for the new crop of family members, it disturbs me a great deal.
Hey, I just sent a writer friend of mine, Cris Mazza, your way re: guest blogging. I was going to email you today and tell you about her. But since we’re both “here” (I wish “here” were somewhere we could order a drink together!)
I heard from Cris – thanks! And I so agree, wish we were somewhere together to order that drink! I suppose “virtual” drinking is the best we can do right now….. clink clink.
Good lord. You’re raising the bar around here.
Deleting my piece about how the Scorpions kick Dokken’s ass,
Ha! I don’t know who Dokken is, which is why I have to resort to writing about my personal dramas, instead of about the Scorpions, Art!
Gina, an absorbing, fascinating post.
You take us (nearly) full circle from your pregnant throbbing frustration at your husband’s mother to an enlightened-about-herself-as-well-as-her-now-dead-nemesis-reader.
You are true, here in this post as well as in your fiction, to your nicely poetic writing maxim:
“I would continue to put my neck out to the blade of others’ criticism or anger when writing. I would continue to write as if everyone I had ever known was already dead, even though they were not, and even knowing there could be reckoning.”
In elucidating your considered thoughts about why an author writes (and would be well to write) honestly while knowing they face readers’ condemnations, you tangled your experienced theories about writing together with your grueling duel with your husband’s mother.
In so doing, you’ve launched me in removing a wall I’ve held against my writing for some 40 years.
Thank you for your help.
Judy, I’m extremely honored by your comment.
And one of the things I love most about being a writer–instead of a dancer or figure skater or gymnast or some other kind of artist who maxes-out at 23!–is the way we can just get better and stronger with age. A wall held for 40 years can be removed, and a writer can have her strongest work still yet to come.
Gina, how true about the older, often the better, writer. So often, with poets, for example, I’m amazed at how bad their youthful work is (e.g., Keats and Yeats), so much so that you cannot even assess their potential from it. Fairly often, though, one can glimpse gold in young fiction-writers. That may have to do with the essential differences between poem-writing and fiction-writing; I’m not sure.
In any event, you and I agree that age is no limit for a writer—-rather, in fact, a glorious advantage. I’ve always thought that great writers are great thinkers.
A lovely newly-discovered truth is that in general an older person takes a bit more time to come up with a response to a complex question than a younger person takes—-and the reason is that the older person has so much more experience/reading to review, assess and knit together meaningfully than a young person does. This was discovered by Alzheimers researchers, whose facts relieved plenty of older people from constant worry about their slow responses, which they immediately took to mean forgetfulness marking an inevitable Alzheimer condition.
On a wildly separate note: Have you dined at that terrific Moroccan restaurant on the northside recently?
Oh, I love that place! I haven’t been in ages. It’s really hard to park around there. But whenever I pass it in the car, I’m always longing to go.
Right now, I just had braces put on my teeth, so I’m not able to enjoy eating very much, I’m afraid. I’m pretty much drinking a lot of coffee, tea, soup and wine, with oatmeal passing as my most solid food. It’s been a bit of a bummer. I could really go for some pastilla or tangine!
Gina, remind me of the Moroccan restaurant’s name.
Oh yes I’d love to tuck into tagine!
So far we haven’t found a good Moroccan restaurant here in Darlington UK, but we’ve found The Best Ever Italian restaurant, called Sardi’s because the owner brothers are from Sardinia.
The best Italian restaurant in London, just in case you find yourself there or know someone who wants a recommendation, is Anacapri on Dorset Street.
You can tell I’m due to have dinner. 😉
Hmmmm……a liquid diet, not the happiest of things. Pureed carrot and coriander soup……pureed lentil and Parma ham soup…….pureed mushroom soup…….ice cream!……sorbet…….
I’m gonna go make some honey-sweetened vanilla ice cream now. It’ll be ready to eat in an hour. HOO HA!
It’s Andalous and it’s on Clark Street, near the intersection of Clark and School.
Where exactly is Darlington?
I used to live in London, but haven’t been to the UK now in about 11 years. Between 1988 and 1999, I was there a great deal, even when living here in the States. I miss it so much. I’m actually having a 4 hour layover at Heathrow on December 2, on my way to Nairobi, and I’m really heartbroken that it’s not just a bit longer so I could go into the city and tool around a bit. Things must be so different from how I left them. Even the difference between 88-98 was so astronomical in terms of London becoming so much more a “global” city than an “English” city, and huge amounts of gentrification.
God, I miss that place.
The best Italian restaurant I’ve ever eaten at outside of Italy is here in Chicago, called La Scarola. But the second best was in Lausanne, Switzerland, oddly enough. They had this sauteed spinach that my husband and I have spent a decade trying to recreate . . .
Thanks, Gina, I never would’ve remembered it: Andalous on Clark Street. Haven’t been back to Chicago in oinks.
Darlington’s between York and Newcastle.
London’s impossible to *not* love. I certainly understand your missing it after having been there so much. It’s quite impossible to afford living there, though, unless you live in Buckingham Palace.
Wish I’d taken advantage of more restaurants in Chicago when living there. Tell me a bit about La Scarola, and I’ll ask my Chicago buddies to check it out.
You and your husband are foodies, fer sher! I get that decade-long effort to do the sauteed spinach just so. HA! I even *dream* about how they do the sauce for veal medallions at Sardi’s, concluding that they must use butter and possibly in a roux, but the devil’s in the details, and theirs are incredibly subtle combos of herbs and spices.
The honeyed vanilla ice cream’s ready to put in the ice cream freezer. Yummmm…….
On your way to Nairobi, Gina?! What’s that all about?
Judy, I’m spending the entire month of December in Kenya because I won the Summer Literary Seminars writing contest (judged by Mary Gaitskill, which really would have been prize enough in itself; I worship her work), and they’re sending me to their Kenya seminar, “Kenya Between the Lines,” with all tuition, room, airfare paid for.
Naturally, David and I had to find a way to make this expensive for ourselves . . . so midway through, once the seminar migrates from Nairobi to Lamu, David, his father, and all 3 of our kids are flying out and meeting me in Lamu for a week.
After which we’re all doing an 8 day safari, over Christmas.
I’m numb with disbelief that this is all coming up in 3 weeks!
And Newcastle! We’ve probably had this convo on the comments boards before–I was involved, on and off for 2 years, with a man who lived in Newcastle, so I spent a ton of time up there. It was my second home away from London, back in the day. I haven’t been there since 1990. But I used to dream about it constantly. Not that it was such a fabulous place or anything (though it certainly has its charms), but it was just kind of the end of a certain period of my life. (Oh, I’ve been to York, too. Only as a tourist, though. I remember eating a rather obscene quantity of pastries there.)
HOLY MOLY, CONGRATULATIONS on winning the Summer Lit. Sems award! You certainly deserve it!
“I’m spending the entire month of December in Kenya because I won the Summer Literary Seminars writing contest (judged by Mary Gaitskill, which really would have been prize enough in itself; I worship her work), and they’re sending me to their Kenya seminar, ‘Kenya Between the Lines,’ with all tuition, room, airfare paid for.”
YAWK!!! Fantastic, Gina!
Just read this after googling the top ten safari places:
“Masai Mara National Reserve (Kenya)
Kenya is Africa’s most popular safari destination and the Masai Mara Reserve is the most popular wildlife park in Kenya. From July – October you can witness the incredible migration of millions of wildebeest and zebra. The Maasai tribesman also offer cultural tours which will enhance your experience.”
Wildlife photographer, Ronn Maratea’s magnificent book, _African Wildlife: A Photographic Journal_ (hardcover) can be bought for as much as $999 or as little as $1 at amazon.com.
I wrote a Virginian-Pilot (newspaper) article about Ronn Maratea entitled “A Picture of His Heart” in 2005. A former Chicago resident now living in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Maratea primarily photographed in South Africa at Kruger National Park and in the Kalahari desert. He made some 20 trips.
I’ll b/c you the article, if you like. Wish I could b/c his splendid photographs!
Cool, sure, I’d love to read it, Judy.
And thanks, Jessica!
I’m getting really (kind of dysfunctionally) nervous about being separated from my kids for 2 weeks–but it’ll be a super amazing pay off when they all arrive in Lamu and we have 18 days together in Africa!
Ah, the rich soil and all the beauties in Africa to store images for stories, Gina!
“The real woman who was my husband’s mother becomes elusive, unquantifiable, now that she no longer draws breath. She becomes a character I try to decipher.”
Beautiful piece, Gina. For me, it was a difficult relationship with my father. When he died ten years ago, we were barely speaking. I have spent the years since then piecing together the fragments of who he was. The word “forgiveness,” however, seems like a non-sequitur since neither of us are now in a position to apologize. The only thing I can say is, “I think I understand.” But I’m far from finished trying to figure it all out.
Yeah, it’s an interesting thing to conceptualize “forgiving” someone who cannot apologize, who cannot even acknowledge (or reject) the forgiveness, who cannot feel remorse, because they are no longer among us. Though of course even the living can often be incapable or unwilling recipients of forgiveness. I’m not sure that forgiveness IS a two-person party. I think it simply has to be done on our own, irrespective of what the other person thinks, feels, does, or even if they’re still living. Understanding and forgiveness seem, to me, very closely linked, too. Sides of the same coin.
Which sure doesn’t make it easy.
From a girl who’s slowly getting the courage to finish a fiction novel-in-progress that she is sure will cause people to infer certain things about her (many of which are not true), judge her, and/or wonder what the hell goes on in her twisted brain…thank you.
Thank you for writing this and for helping to validate my belief that writing something risky is worth it. IMHO, if what I write causes one person to feel less alone, to understand him- or herself better, or to give them the courage to follow where their urges lead them, even if the road they’re walking on is rather deviant, then I’ve succeeded. Just like you have succeeded with your piece here, making me and presumably many others a little less nervous about putting themselves out there with their writing, taking that risk–and feeling proud of it.
Bellamy–yeah, I think you have to not think about all that when you’re writing. You can give yourself an ulcer later, when the book’s about to get published, ha. In the meanwhile, just write. There’s a great “Dear Sugar” column over at the Rumpus called “Write Like a Motherfucker” (or something like that) that you should read, too. It’s about much of this kind of thing. She’s brilliant, Sugar. Very inspirational.
Thanks for your words.
What an excellent post. I’ve written a blog and linked to you (though it won’t show up for a week). I hope more writers (and readers!) take the time to see what you have to say.
Fabulous, Tami! Thanks so much! Send me the link when it’s up, because I’d be happy to weigh in with readers on any comments if they arise. xx.
For sure. It’ll autopost Thursday morning this week, you can see it here.
G ~ This is a lovely piece, a wonderful meditation on family and writing–and risk. Thank you. There are so many powerful turns of phrase here–“Everything that matters burns.” “Others have to push a little harder to get to the blood.”–that it is (almost) easy to overlook the bigger notion at work in the prose. By that I mean the gentle fashion of self-revelation that is at the core of the essay. For me, when done successfully–like here–it is an effort of the highest order.
I look forward to getting to know your work better.
Thank you, Doug–I really appreciate your response. It’s hard to know what to say to such kind words about my work. A lovely thing to wake up to, truly.
It is such an honor to know you, for real, in the flesh. Thanks again for your sojourn to Boswell’s in Milwaukee last night. What a lucky man I am to “bookend” that event with your profound insights this morning in this essay! You write so beautifully, craft amazing sentences. And the story is chock full of relatable material, whether I have had this mother-in-law or not.
I remember reading My Sister’s Continent like it was yesterday! The material was so dark, so twisted, so disturbing. I raced through the entire book within two unstoppable days. I LOVED IT! I remember thinking who the hell could possibly be so brave to tell this tale? Well, now I know. (I also recall thinking what the hell can I possibly read next!) And, as reader, one rarely thinks about the setting, or backdrop of the admired writer’s life. So, to find out now about this adverse reaction from your mother-in-law is, well, shocking. Here I was in Cabos San Lucas (where I’d stowed away with your book) dreaming about the possibility of one day meeting this way cool, freaking amazingly talented writer!!! Strange, how diverse the reactions can be to our work. And how eloquently you have explored that in this essay.
I admire you even more now. Of course, forgiveness arrives with tremendous work, and at a cost.
Still, bravo, for exemplifying bravery: fiction or otherwise. And for exposing more heart than most.
Wow, what a pleasure it was to meet you. One of those moments when you just know you’d love to hang out with someone a lot more often. Thanks so much for your help with the Boswell’s reading–what a freaking amazing store! Milwaukee always surprises me with its unexpected coolness. That place The Safe House was wackily fabulous, too. You and my friend Avital should meet! You should friend her on FB (Avital Gad-Cykman) and tell her you’re a local and a friend of mine and go out for some drinks. She and her husband are really fun.
You know, I can honestly tell you now that two of my books are out, having been both a writer and a reader, that it is an even bigger thrill and rush to meet someone–a once-random-stranger–who has read your book and who it really impacted in exactly the ways the writer always dreamed it might impact someone–than it is, as a reader, to meet that writer . . . uh, if that sentence made any sense. By which I mean to say, the pleasure was truly all mine. I spent 14 years writing about the characters in My Sister’s Continent, in short stories and various novel drafts before my book finally came out, and to think of you in Cabos San Lucas devouring the book makes me more happy than I can possibly say.
I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.
I know how difficult pieces like this are
to write – how hard it is to get the tone
on your own feelings right and not so
awkward but awkward enough to
ring true – and you did it
& there needs to be writing like this
because we’ve all got stories to tell
that will cause us problems with friends
& family and we are trying to find the courage
& the tone to tell them.
You hear “Write like your parents are dead.”
But you rarely hear the aftermath of such.
Thanks, Jim. Yes, much awkward groping in the dark in this kind of storytelling, and yet the paradoxical necessity of somehow the prose itself having clarity enough so that the reader isn’t always floundering. It’s a strange trick, isn’t it? Writers write about what most confuses us, and yet must do so with both vulnerability and authority. Sometimes, it seems impossible. Yet it also feels so crucial to try.
Hope you’re well.
“Writers write about what most confuses us, and yet must do so with both vulnerability and authority. Sometimes, it seems impossible. Yet it also feels so crucial to try.”
gina, i love this. so inspiring.
i’ve been on the receiving end of hate from strangers but i’ve yet to piss off any family members, if only because i’ve told them, “you’re not allowed to read my stuff.” my dad has smartly decided to bury his head in the sand while my mother occasionally asks about my pieces, and i remind her: “what do you think i write about it?” ie, my divorce, my husband’s cheating, etc. “do you really want to read that?”
more frightening is imagining my ex reading everything i write, although i change names and certain details. several years ago he found my blog and a post i had written about his rage, which prompted him to send me a sarcastic, angry email. that scared me enough to shut down my whole blog, which i still regret to this day.
now i just remind myself that as long as i’m telling the truth, i should be okay. and if the worst i get is an angry email, so be it. like you said, other writers face much bigger dangers and take much bigger risks.
You know, Ang, I really understand people’s anxiety about blogging and having people get pissed about their blogs. I think about friends of mine, like Tod Goldberg or Steve Almond, who have basically been stalked and threatened by crazy strangers, and it doesn’t make me eager to have a deeply personal blog that’s just one step easier for everyone to “find.” But yes, I guess one can anticipate that one’s ex is bound to get pissed, so if he’s the only one bothered, and if all he’s doing is sending a sarcastic email, then probably you were coming out ahead! That’s too bad you shut down your blog–from what I see of your writing here, it must have been pretty cool. Does it all “disappear” then? You can’t get it back up?
This was one badass TNB post.
I’m probably stating the obvious by saying that you should do some sort of book about this. (And perhaps I’m repeating a similar sentiment in a previous comment?)
The first thought was: Write a novel about it. But on second thought, it might be interesting to do some sort of investigative work of nonfiction. Try to figure this thing out. Look into your mother-in-law’s past in an effort to smoke out why your book had such an effect on her.
Thanks for your hilarious comment on FB!
Yeah, you know, this whole episode is actually going to appear in a novel, only the writer is male in that case, because I felt like the whole “this writer is a pervert and possibly a sexual predator to my grandchildren” accusation maybe would hold a more threatening weight had I been a man. I felt, in a way, like those strains of her delusion–which frankly were by far the ones that were most devastating to me on an emotional level–are much more easily viewed by others as “just crazy-talk” when someone is saying them about a mom, whereas the culture is often so suspicious of men, adult males with children, that if someone were saying this (more vocally, in more public ways than my MIL was), about a father, things could go more wrong, with some people becoming genuinely suspicious of the father in question even if the accusation was just as completely off-base. So I’m interested in exploring that.
It’s only one (fairly small) strain of that novel (which is still nowhere near finished), though. It will, however, be the first time I’ve ever written about a writer, which is something we’re not “supposed” to do, but, well, fuck it.
I’ll tell you, TNB has been great, though (or awful, depending how I look at it!), at bringing up a shitload of topics I’d love to write nonfiction books about. Like, of course, the series about my dad. I never thought I’d ever do a nonfiction book of any kind, but after my years at TNB, it looks like I may end up having to do several!
EXCELLENT piece, Gina. So thoughtful and insightful and interesting and sad. You have such an intelligent and SANE point of view.
Here’s a John Irving quote that I was reminded of after reading your piece:
“If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.”
Jessica, that quote just made me so happy I’m not sure I can articulate it. I’m not even an Irving fan, but I feel like that one quote just said every single thing I believe about writing. Thanks.
Gina, this is beautiful and brave and I am transfixed by your ability to channel the human condition of projection, of the difficulty in navigation relationships and sussing out whats ours and what is truly someone else’s burden to carry.
I love your description of parenting. It is indeed the most risky, most terrifying endeavor…
Your need to forgive because you harbor a sensitivity that simply does not allow you to carry the acidic, soul crushing anger…I can so relate.
Thank you for telling this story, telling it with honesty and panache. And thank you for reminding me to tear down the walls in my own work.
Thanks, Meg. Yes, parenting is, absolutely hands down, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Not because I harbor tons of fears of “doing it wrong” or because I find the parenting itself so difficult (those are legit concerns, too, and I know many people have them, including excellent parents, but it’s not where my own particular terrors lie), but because I have never done anything that opens me up to the potential of so much loss or pain, in that my childrens’ well-being and safety and physical and emotional health carries so much more primacy now than my own ever could. It is a kind of excruciating, painful joy, each moment and day when things are good, because there is just so much potential for things going awry. Life is dangerous, precarious, and we can’t, any of us, assume that health or safety are the “baseline” or the norm, so every day we have them is a gift. But that’s incredibly scary. Parenting is not for pussies. If someone wants a life free of risk or pain, they’d be wise to avoid it like the plague. Though it also gives off an endorphin high unlike anything else I’ve ever, ever experienced, and for myself, I feel like a life without my kids would have been a half-life, despite all the “adventures” I had before them.
yes yes yes yes yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
THANK YOU FOR THIS, FROM ALL OF US.
You’re very welcome, Meg. From all of me.
[…] discipline and the practice. It’s hard, and it’s risky. As author Gina Frangello writes in her essay at The Nervous Breakdown, “Everything that matters burns. I believe that. On the page and in […]
Tremendous piece, Gina! So much I’ll take away from it as a writer, like this: “Everything that matters burns. I believe that. On the page and in life.”
Cynthia, thank you. I’ve been reminding myself of this belief a lot lately, as I’m about to embark on a few things that scare me but seem worth pushing through the fear. In life, not in writing, in this case–but often those two rivers meet up down the line.
. . . this was an amazing post, gina, so glad to have read it . . .
JE! I’ve been meaning to congratulate you on the kick ass PW review! Thanks, and hope this finds you well.
Gina, I finally got a chance to read this, and I’m so glad I did. Your insight at the end is profound.
Your experience shows the impossibility of truly sussing what about a piece of writing is going to create havoc among those one knows in the first place, especially with fiction. I mean, as you say, it’s not like you ever thought your mother-in-law (or the moms at school, for that matter) was going to invite you to discuss your novel about SM and incest with her book group or treasure her autographed copy, but you could have never predicted the violence of her reaction. If we as writers try to make those predictions, we’re going to be leaving out more and more and more, until everything truly meaningful is muted. Or maybe we’ll respond in the opposite way, and write purposefully to shock from a place of defiance and anger and outrage. That might not always be the whole truth either. It goes without saying to anyone who has read your work that this is not the case with you, but writing graphic or taboo material can sometimes be used as…. I was going to say as a shorthand to searing honesty, but I guess I mean as a replacement for it, or a decoy from it. You get at that with your comment about the wild craziness of adventures had most often during youth not trumping the domesticated experience for sources of burn.
Lots to think about here. Thank you.
Thanks, girl–yeah, it’s interesting. I feel like a lot of 1990s writing (and film) featured that “shortcut to searing honesty” that was actually, if you looked deeply, more “a replacement for it or a decoy from it.” A lot of shock for shock’s sake; a lot of gratuitious everything, from sex to violence to just a general sense of nihilism in a lot of literature/film/art. Coming of age as a writer then, I admit that I was deeply drawn to some of it that WAS genuinely shocking, in terms of the fact that it had never been done–or culturally sanctioned–in such a widespread manner before. I remember reading VOGUE magazine and there being articles about “perversion chic,” and of course there was heroin chic, and people wrote about their spanking fetishes in the New Yorker. And to a certain point there was beauty there in something being embraced that had previously been so secret and hidden. But then it started getting a little goofy. Every movie had to have a serial killer or hit man as the protagonist; every story I read for Other Voices magazine had to feature a character who had been tragically abused in graphic ways–we were heading for some strange, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN culture, wherein characters were assholes and sex was exploitative as a matter of course, but the commentary on what it “meant” seemed like more of a guise to be hip than like it was actually saying anything meaningful.
Then there were writers like Mary Gaitskill and Kathy Acker and Dorothy Allison emerging from that climate, writers who could not really have been produced or been embraced in any previous age of literature, who truly knew how to utilize grit and sex and violence to get at hearts of things that had rarely been articulated as lucidly in the past–writers for whom this freedom to explore darker undercurrents (male writers too, but they had been doing this more since the 1970s; it was newer for women–I guess Acker was late 70s too, but it seemed like her form of work was embraced later)–and I definitely think of these women as being the formative mothers I looked at for guidance in terms of what it meant to write with honesty. I should stipulate that I think Acker went over the top at times and veered into that other camp of shock for shock’s sake. But I do think that she was also a true groundbreaker–that when she hit the mark, she was a genius. And Gaitskill. Well, my feelings about Gaitskill are probably pretty well documented, ha. I mean, when I read Bad Behavior for the first time, in maybe 1992, I felt like my head had exploded. I was living in rural New England and didn’t know any other writers, and I had thought (ah, the egotism of youth) that nobody else was doing what I was trying to do–and then I read Gaitskill, and I learned immediately that ego is far less valuable than actually having an ideological mentor of sorts, a guide post, a school of work or tradition into which my own work might conceptually belong. That sense of not being alone in the world is much more fulfilling than a sense of thinking you’re so damn unique . . .
But yeah. You have to ultimately figure it out on your own. You have your influences, and your tradition, and the writers you admire–but if you just imitate them or try to “best” them in some gratuitious manner, you end up just trying to show off, substituting graphic material for anything resembling real heart, instead of using all your material–graphic and otherwise–to really dig deeper and get inside the skin of your characters, and inside the central questions that matter.
Oh, p.s. (because that previous comment wasn’t long enough!): It goes without saying that I prefer the shock-and-awe publishing climate of the 90s, despite a bit of oozing gratuitousness, to the neo-Puritanism of the post 9/11 publishing industry. But I’d better not even get started on that.
Gina, I’m sorry it’s taken me days to read this, but I’m really glad I did.
Everything that matters burns. <—– I love this line so much. Writing is risk. If you don’t feel that when you’re writing, for god’s sake stop. It’s a shitty job. Give it up if you can. That’s simultaneously sad and exulting. I think I have it.
When somebody dies, a dialogue becomes a monologue. Also a great line.
What a wild tale, Gina. Holy smokes. I’m sorry you all experienced that. I hope there haven’t been any explosions with Slut Lullabies! Well, not familial ones. 🙂
Thanks, Gloria. No huge explosions this time around. I think I have one slightly disgruntled friend, but she’s been pretty gracious considering. Ironic, too, since SL has no “Freudian” framework, is a way, way more autobiographical book on a plot level (though in some ways the emotional content of a book is always autobiographical), and yet no one has disowned me for it.
So yeah, impossible to ever predict.
Jesus, Gina. Way to raise the bar. Fuck.
As many have said, sorry for running late. After getting back in from the States two days back I’ve been trying to catch up on as many pieces as I can before they slip off the front page. I’m glad I got to this one. It’s probably one of my favourite TNB pieces since I first started contributing.
And on a personal note, I’m sorry to hear about the whole ordeal. An ex-Prime Minster of Australia, Bob Hawke, once spoke about jealousy. He said ‘I’ve seen people destroyed by jealousy; it’s one of the most corrosive emotions a human being can experience.’ While this isn’t a piece about jealousy, I think there’s a relevance in the reference to corrosion; that sort of vitriolic, bitter, eating away of happiness and health can be the worst part of anger and internal pain.
In terms of self, and stemming on from some of the discussion here, my policy is to change names, change sexes, even change relationships in order to preserve people’s identities, and I usually, even then, ask permission. If there’s little chance of obfuscation, then I absolutely ask permission – my parents have requested that I don’t write about any family histories on the site, and I can respect that. They’d probably be hurt by any kind of disclosure, and I don’t think it’s really a battle that’s worth enough to me that I’m going to fight them on it. ‘Hey, Mum and Dad! I did this thing you asked me not to so that I could talk about myself on the internet..
I think one of the most important parts of that good, important writing is the inspiration it can bring. I know TNB inspires me to work harder, to hone my skills. Pieces like this, for instance, make me narrow my eyes a little and decide I need to edit whatever I publish next a little more (I really liked it). The fiction that pops up, or that I’ve read from other TNBers, often makes me wish I’d actually worked while studying for my English degree, or makes me want to be a better writer (there’s a lot of room for improvement there… and I’m happy that there are signposts around to help me be aware of that fact).
As you pointed out, your work, at least, remained with your MIL after she’d closed the page. In a way that was, obviously, difficult for her to say the least, and lead to unforeseen and completely unwanted consequences, but, you’re right. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? The intent of art is to provoke; there’s no guarantee of what that provocation will result in.
Thanks, Simon–happy to see you here! And I very much appreciate your kind words.
You know, you’re very right about needing to pick one’s battles, as a writer and in all things. It’s almost like what I was saying with Zoe Zolbrod (above)–I’m not sure one should write about one’s family solely to provoke or instigate, any more than a writer should depict sex or violence only to shock. There has to be a real, very deep and burning need on the part of the writer, and the need should clearly be about more than “seeking attention” or–of course–“getting revenge” on a family member. We live in an age of dissolving boundaries and a lot of confessional dumping. Out of that age, some luminous work emerges (as I often mention, Stephen Elliott’s Adderall Diaries, for example, would have been thought completely deviant in earlier ages–not just for the sexual content, but for the way the author explores family secrets and crimes without ever nailing down “the truth” or claiming full ownership of the facts. This is not your fact-checking version of a memoir.) But for every Elliott, there is some wanker putting all his trivial family secrets up on some blog somewhere just to annoy his parents and call himself a writer. And then there are the many, many shades of gray in between.
Here at TNB, we are on an honor system of sorts. Brad screens us to let us in, but then we are “in control” of our own posts and of ourselves. Nobody polices us to make sure we don’t use the site in inappropriate or gratuitous ways (though if we did so repeatedly, I guess we would be asked to take a hike.) It’s therefore very important, as you indicate, to regulate ourselves. Not “self-censorship,” but a genuine engagement with what we write and why we write it–an honest self-assessment. People (myself included) have divulged some highly personal things on this site. We need to hold ourselves to a standard of why we’re doing it, what our risks are FOR, and whether we truly believe in them. Certainly if we can accomplish our goals as a writer, and get to the core of what we want to say, without any casualties, then by all means we should.
That said, I’m betting your mum and dad have a pretty damn good sense of humor!
I made the mistake of thinking that what I wrote last would stay in the community of people who read TNB.
Apparently, I have relatives that are on Facebook, where we post to advertise our stories on TNB.
This came as a surprise to me.
I didn’t think anyone in my family was on Facebook.
I believe I have started a little trouble for myself.
Oh, Irene. I’ve already emailed you privately, but this is just very unfortunate news. Yikes.
Ah, Facebook. Yes, there is no such thing as a “private” community anymore, it seems.
This is outstanding, Gina. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen on TNB in a long time. I read it a few days ago, but I was too pressed for time to leave a comment. Had it been otherwise, I’m sure I would have attempted a theory about your mother-in-law, and I’m now glad I didn’t, seeing that it would surely have been wrong. There’s an inclination to read a little and assume a lot, as I did initially. But you know far more than I will ever know, and the only thing that matters on my end is that, again, I was very impressed with the writing.
Duke, you’re too kind. Thank you. You’ve wowed me more than a few times yourself.
Hey, hope things with the book are going fabulously and that you’re having a lot of fun!
Great essay, Gina. What I’ve always found odd is the tendency some people have to want to find pieces of the writer in a work of fiction. If one wants to be generous about the intentions of the reader who does this, you could take it as a kind of defensiveness against being fully moved by a work of art. Or, on the other hand, it’s almost an act of aggression against the author by trivializing the work. I couldn’t help wondering, while reading this essay, whether that was at the bottom of your mother-in-law’s intention: to belittle your accomplishment.
Susan Sontag said something great about this (though I may be taking it out of her context): “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” Stop “looking” for things, people, and allow yourself to be moved!
I wonder if your mother-in-law was so afraid of being moved by your work on its own artistic terms that she insisted on stoking her own anger as a means of taking charge.
Well, anyway, I’ll stop the amateur psychoanalysis. Good for you for not allowing it to bring you down.
You know, I’m rereading “Against Interpretation” right now, so what weird timing for you to bring up Sontag. Certainly you’re quite right. There are elements of this, as well as the “jealousy” Simon mentions in his comment, to my story, I’m sure. The whole thing is a psychoanalyst’s wet dream, no? I mean, your son’s wife (i.e. lover) writes a really graphically sexual book in which, if you follow the model of “interpretation” that you discuss above, you then cannot refrain from inserting your son as a player . . . the situation is full of possible jealousies, with desires to “reduce” (the work; me) that end up achieving the opposite and conflating . . . family therapy would have had a field day with the lot of us. Uh, if we’d been speaking to one another long enough to go to a shrink, that is.
1. Family therapy is overrated. You could go to your own individual shrinks!
2. Better yet, make all this the subject for your next novel.
I go along with that. My impression while reading, was that the extreme reaction likely had little to do with the book, per se. The book was just a catalyst or trigger for something much bigger and darker that was being held behind a locked door, and bingo, you stuck a key in the lock.
I’m also using my own mother-in-law pattern familiar to me, to read in.
One reason I think that is the lack (in the story) of any substantive, qualitative detail from her, of her objection. Bad writing? Bad research? Bad interpretation of research? Bad characters? Bad science? Refutes or contradicts work of her own?
none of that…
Eh, it’s a perplex.
Yes, Dwoz, you say it best here: “something much bigger and darker that was being held behind a locked door, and bingo, you stuck a key in the lock.”
The novel as a whole (some particular scenes she harped on, especially) was supposed to illustrate what a damaged pervert I was, I guess. But why–even had that been TRUE–her response would have been what it was (fury; cutting off her grandchildren; obsessively re-reading the book) would have been inexplicable.
It was about her, not about me. I don’t own this story, really. Though my novel was a catalyst, I was in part an observer–the quintessential peripheral narrator. Except that because she was a real woman, not a character from inside my mind, she died before any “epiphany” could be revealed, and what it all means precisely will always be a mystery.
Wow. Thanks for sharing, Gina. So much to chew on here. Glad you had the courage to post this up and deal with your MIL, that’s a lot of stress. And it seems you’ve gotten some enlightenment out of all of this. I didn’t read all 100+ posts, so I’ll probably echo somebody, but I’ll just add that one of my mantras is “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” something Nietzsche said. And I believe that. SO, flex those bulging biceps, Gina.
Can’t wait to read Slut Lullabies, too.
Thanks, Richard! Never bad to have a little infusion of Nietzsche into one’s family dramas!
Couldn’t have picked a better piece to read today. Well done, Gina. We’ll have much to discuss next time we meet up.
[…] been giving me trouble for the last couple of days. I can always go back to it later. I read an essay by Gina Frangello yesterday that sparked an idea – an idea with urgency, one I can really chase. Since […]
Hopefully sometime soon in Nederland/Boulder, Erika! (And when’s Bryan putting your book out, btw?)
I’m so late to the party I’m looking for the beer without cigarette butts dropped into the bottle. But oh well.
As always, I am completely floored. And, much like Erika said above, this is exactly what I needed to hear today. You give a lot of people courage with your pieces, and for that I am eternally thankful.
“Everything that matters burns. I believe that. On the page and in life.”
This really struck me.
What a great, powerful piece.
[…] Risky Writing: The Story I Always Tell and Never Tell […]
[…] relating to the mechanics of writing for the site in specific, or writing itself in general. Gina’s excellent piece on the risks of writing, for instance, garnered an instant and considered response. So too did the […]
Which Golf Clubs Are Better – Steel or Graphite ?
This has been here some time, but I’m new, there’s a lot to catch up on. I wanted to extend my admiration anyway.
What a moving piece. I understand it, though I have not lived anything like this.
“Writing is risk. If you don’t feel that when you’re writing, for god’s sake stop. It’s a shitty job. Give it up if you can.”
This is exactly what I needed today… sitting at my desk and wondering what the hell I am doing to myself???? I thought writing would be an inexpensive hobby. I hadn’t prepared for the therapist visits.