I had a head start on Memorial Day. Four weeks ago my siblings and I gathered with our spouses and most of our offspring to celebrate our father’s 90th birthday. I joked with him that being at the party was a little like attending his own funeral, because he got to hear so many people recount flattering memories of him. He laughingly agreed. It was a little like attending his own funeral in a couple of other odd ways: it took place in an events center in the cemetery, and he wore a black suit – a story we’ll be telling for a couple of generations.
Not surprisingly, the entire weekend was full of stories of long ago. The ones we talked about were the good times, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one making choices about which ones to bring up. I know we aren’t the only family with a herd of wild elephants living in our midst. There are the things we talk about and the things we let slide. in our case this seems fitting since, due to geographical diversity, we seldom see each other. (Twenty-five people convened from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.)
On further thought I’ve realized that while it makes sense to stick to the smooth path at gatherings, the things we didn’t talk about contain the most meat and the juiciest story content. While we have plenty of hilariously funny stories, the gripping ones are guarded by the herd of elephants always nearby.
The question is how to go about this. Elephants can be dangerous, even deadly, as my husband and I learned from our guides in Chobe National Park in Botswana. Safari drivers are wary around elephants, keeping a respectful distance, a foot near the gas pedal, and avoiding confrontation whenever possible. Elephants are usually sedate, but you never know what will set one off, and they are a force to be reckoned with. Similar respect for relationship elephants is also well-advised.
Below is a list of suggestions for how to write honestly about the “good stuff” and still be welcome at family gatherings:
- Keep your writing private. This is always a safe strategy. You can always change your mind and share private material, but you can’t retract it once it’s been read.
- Limit distribution. As long as you confine readership to a limited audience such as a trusted writing group, you should be able to safely get the support and feedback you desire. You might also share with trusted family members, but that gets trickier. Things have a way of slipping out unexpectedly.
- Let the main characters read it privately. Sometimes reading a story is a powerful way of opening dialogues that otherwise would not take place, resulting in healed relationships and perhaps support for publishing your story more widely. But there are no guarantees. You’ll have to weigh the risks and make your own decision.
- Wait until the main character dies. You’ll probably outlive your parents, but depending on current ages, you may not want to wait that long. Ditto if your age group is involved.
- Wait until you die. If you are writing strictly for family, and especially if you have dark secrets of your own you’d prefer to to never confront, this may be a good choice. The Bridges of Madison County can shed light on this option, even though it is a novel rather than a memoir. Pay close attention to the reaction of the children Francesca leaves behind.
- Write your story as fiction. This option can free you to say a lot of things you might otherwise keep hidden. But do realize you’ll have to make drastic changes to keep insiders from inferring “the facts” behind your Truth.
- Tell your story to the world and let the chips fall where they may. You may find that it’s not nearly the big deal you thought it was.
Any number of variations are possible on these themes. Write your stories, privately at first, and then let your heart be your guide as you move down the path. Learn what you can from the writing, and then let compassion be your guide.
Write now: Recall some elephants from gatherings you have attended, whether they involve family or others. Write about these elephants, considering various points of view. See what you can learn from your stories, what new meaning may arise.
Photo: Sharon Lippincott