| How To
Figures The Story I Can’t Write About My Family
In fiction, one needs motivations, wants, and fears; one needs cause and effect. In life, it’s messier.
I want to write a short story about this dinner we had the other night with my parents. I want to write a short story because there are all sorts of things contained inside that dinner, but, while the things contained are fraught and ugly, sometimes violent, the dinner was mostly not. I want to write it as a story because I do not want to hurt my parents, because I want to get them right, and to get them right, is to paint them in a not entirely nice light.
I want to write a short story because it’s not about my parents, because what’s between us is between us and I don’t imagine many people want to read about us just for the sake of that. I want to write it though because there is a sort of nuance to it, a love and hate both uncertain and specific that feels worth writing about in a short story, that feels close to what I think short stories might be meant to show. I want to write it because I love my parents and have never not loved them, because they love me, because that has somehow, at least in our case, never been enough.
Every time I try to write it though, any story lately, I knock up against the fact of not enough words, not enough space, not enough small, tight scenes in which the love and hate exist at once and can be both acknowledged and understood. I run up against a whole load of doubt about the value of short stories, what with the world falling apart daily. What with climate change.
A thousand years ago I wanted to write short stories because they felt impossibly important. A thousand years ago I was silly, dumb, and very young. I wanted to write short stories because I was taught somewhere that what I had to say had worth or value. I wanted to write short stories because I did not feel capable of being daily in the world.
I read a study somewhere that said the percentage of people who study humanities is three times as high for people who are brought up in privilege. We don’t understand fully, this article suggested, the consequences of these choices; we were never taught we should. This is also pertinent in this story I’m not writing. My parents’ privilege, how it’s been a gift to me, the way I took so long to learn to live.
Fiction, I often tell my students, isn’t life, and this is important. In fiction, one needs motivations, wants and fears; one needs cause and effect. In life, it’s messier. There often are not clear causes or explanations, often there aren’t endings or beginnings. Those of us who live much of our lives inside of fiction are often terrified when we have to try to live.
In a short story that involves my parents there is often far too much that makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t met them. There is often far too much that makes no sense to me. They’re nice then mean for no good reason. I feel devastated by them when they’re kind, then sad for them when I’m unkind to them. My father texted me a couple of weeks ago in response to a picture that I’d sent him of our two girls in which they’re grinning: He texted back, I love happy girls. I was pissed for half an hour thinking of the very unhappy teenage girl I was that he never quite knew how to love. I want to write a short story that somehow teaches the reader how to read everything they say, and I say, upside down and backwards, how to read inside the words, how to flip them over, make them new.
In the story I’m not writing it opens with our drive down to Florida from Brooklyn. The story opens with my husband and I deciding impulsively on a Sunday to drive down to Florida Monday morning though we have no plans to go to Florida, though our four-year-old still has two days left of school. It opens showing that we are the type of people that might choose to do this, that we have so few ties, so little regard for making plans, that we are both underemployed. It mentions somehow that we are broke and this is the only chance we have to do anything besides the same things we always do each day taking care of our kids, that we’re not able this year to afford camp or too much childcare, time outside the city for which we’d have to pay, so when his mother calls and offers to pay for the gas it would take to drive down to Florida, there is no saying no.
The story opens with alluding to the fact that both of us grew up in the same small town in Florida, that this is a strange and charming fact, we think, about us, that we both grew up in this place we love but also hate. In a short story, all of this would come off clunky. Talk of money, flashbacks, but they are necessary here. Talk of money is a thing I’ve been thinking often lately is not present enough in the short stories that I loved when I first set out to be a writer. These stories were all written by the same sorts of people, people not in need of context because many of their contexts were very much the same.
The story might open with my husband saying, You have to text your mother , because it’s with his parents that we’re staying, it’s his parents to whom he speaks daily, his mother who convinced us to drive down. How then to explain we always stay with them and that it’s more complicated than favorites. How to slip in that when our kids were very small I lived with his parents for three months when our baby was just born and my husband was travelling for work. How to explain my parents live in this same town but I hardly saw them. How to explain how strange this was but also not.
In a short story, there would have to be a reason and there isn’t. There are thousands: tiny moments, choices, slights and misreads, years and years of damage, but more than reasons, it’s the fact of it that matters, it’s its lack of reasons, how little any of us expect it to be any different any longer, that informs our lives the most.
You have to text your mother, says my husband in the story I’m not writing. He also said it in real life, as we drove for hours. I know, I said and stared out the window, scrolled through my phone. I kept the children stocked on snacks, turned on a movie, read more Twitter, waited another couple hours.
We’re last minute on our way to Florida, I told my mother via text when we got to North Carolina.
She’s going to think I’m lying, I told my husband.
We’re going to the Bahamas Friday, said my mom.
In a short story, I would have to break this delicately, through telling details, but I can’t write the story, so I’ll just tell you: My parents are quite wealthy. Neither of them grew up that way, but they are now.
I can do Thursday, said my mother. I might be able to sneak out by three. My parents have both worked sixty-hour weeks my whole life. They are lawyers. We’ll come back to this.
I’ll get off early, she said. We can have lunch, hang out at the beach.
My parents have a massive house on the beach that is bigger than our apartment building in Brooklyn. When we visit, our four-year-old always asks where all the other people are.
Okay, I said. Thursday.
In the short story I can’t write, the “I” character will have been at the beach all afternoon with her two small children and her husband when they finally go to her parents on that Thursday. Her mother will have texted to have pushed the time back because she got held up at work. The “I” character will have rinsed each of the children and changed them out of their salty, sandy bathing suits, in order that her father not look quietly horrified as they walk into his house. How to mention there are rooms inside the house where the children aren’t allowed to enter, that there’s a perfect looking, pristine living room, the couches on which, the children are not allowed to sit. The “I” character’s husband also will have rinsed off, changed his shirt to one that buttons with a collar and has not been at the beach all day, while the “I” character will still be in her bathing suit. Her ankles will still have sand on them and she will wear wet flip flops. Her hair will be short and messy. She will walk into the perfect pristine house without apology.
In the short story I want to write, though I am deeply averse to writing short stories about writers, I imagine the “I” character should be a writer, if only to note that the parents in the story do not once ask a question about how this “I” character’s writing of her second book is getting along. These parents, I could show, do not, have never quite, believed in the idea of Writer as a Job like Lawyer. I could insert at least one comment, from my father, about what luck it is, for my husband and I to have so much free time all the time.
The “I” character won’t mind this not asking about her writing, not only because the writing is in a sort of horrifying place as a result of her recent fear of the worth of fiction, because of the publishing world’s fear of the worth of the “I” character’s work specifically, but also because it makes everyone uncomfortable, her parents’ asking about her fiction. It’s been too long, too many years. Too many years of their asking and their being hurt by her not wanting to answer. Too many years of her answering, and their responses feeling not quite right.
Not listening or not hearing or not asking will pervade the story. The “I” character quietly asking small things of the parents and them ignoring her will happen again and again, until the reader understands this is a thing, perhaps the thing, the reason that the story came to be. This will somehow, a short scene or maybe a quick, resonant flashback, suggest this writer’s upbringing had something to do with her becoming a fiction writer, that after years of sitting quietly in rooms and not being listened to or acknowledged like she wanted, she started writing, if only to be heard and seen. The scene must also acknowledge that this is common, that every human has a version of not being heard or seen or listened to, that there are so many circumstances, so much worse than this character’s. That becoming a writer is equally informed by a nearly delusional belief in the necessity of one’s being heard.
In the short story I can’t write, the “I” character will be in the midst of a strange obsession with the mid-twentieth-century writer Henry Green, having been reading and re-reading his novel Party Going intermittently and without quite loving it for months; having fallen in love with the idea of the ways in which he problematizes the very concept of the novel, gives the reader very little, flips and twists the syntax, switches perspectives without warning and at will.
The “I” character will be researching his life and thinking about all those writers about whom no one ever cares, and who are never quite successful. Who are later, long after their deaths, reissued by the New York Review of Books. The “I” character will be just beginning to knock up against the sad, quiet fact of writerly irrelevance, which is itself, embarrassing: Most writers are irrelevant—what is relevance? Who cares?
This will be further complicated, in this story, by the standards of success passed down by the parents the “I” character has come to visit, the fact that everything that she’s been taught says she must make Money, that Money is what matters, that Money is how you prove you’re worthy in the world. This part of the short story is especially tricky for me, as a writer, to consider. I came from privilege. I must both acknowledge and be cognizant of my privilege, while also attempting, maybe, to portray the specific complications of downwardly mobile, white, wealthy progeny of which I am. I came from new money, which is different than old money, money that my parents made themselves, by working hard, by pulling up the figurative straps of their nonexistent boots. I would want somehow to show that this is true, but also contributes significantly to their inability to see how other people might not make it, how, though they came from nothing and became something, they still had all sorts of privileges that other people don’t.
I had infinitely more privileges than they did. I had their money, no student loans. I had the privilege of thinking life might turn out fine and so I decided early that I’d write.
In the story, I might be able to show how I am angry nearly constantly when I am with my parents, though they don’t deserve this, though it makes me feel sick and sad for what a small pathetic person I am when I’m with them. I am angry at least partially because sometimes I wish I would have known more fully the implications of my choices, the impact of my privilege. I wish I would have been slightly more prepared to be this broke. In the story, I might passive aggressively mention that my husband and I are in an especially precarious financial state at the moment of this dinner, that my husband isn’t working, that we’re not sure how we’ll pay our next month’s rent. I might flashback to a reading I did a few weeks prior in which there were a handful of women whom I vaguely knew who I knew wished they had a book out like I do, how I wanted to take them all aside and tell them, while I hope their dreams come true, it’s not so dreamy—it’s also pretty terrifying—to have all your dreams come true and still not be sure that you’ll be able to feed and clothe and keep shelter for your kids.
This then, through the lens of the beach view of the back porch where my husband has a beer and my parents take our children swimming in their pool that overlooks the ocean, that purports to go on for infinity. This then, in the context of my father describing to me how he got a man with a crane to install the row of tall palm trees that line the back of the house, in the context of my mother describing to my husband a trip they took to New Zealand in which, to get around more quickly, they, with a group, employed a private plane.
In the short story that I want to write there will be at least one small scene in which my father takes me aside and we try like we’ve tried since the break we had sometime just before I went to college, to be as close and bonded as we were when I was small. My father will tell the “I” character how he has a man who is half black work in the yard for him and how he is his best friend now. I will somehow show, without judging my father, because I do believe he is not as awful as the detail might portray him to be, that my father, his whole life, says the word black in a whisper, in a different tone than the tone he uses for all other words. I will work hard to shape my face in a nice way as my father says this, though I will be both confused by the way my father talks about this man’s race and saddened by the fact that my father’s only friend is a man he pays by the hour to help him work in his yard.
This also, of course, isn’t the whole story. He has other friends. This is partially only a thing he says to show he cares for and about the people that he hires.
In the short story I’m not writing, the “I” character will have called the day before to remind my mother that our kids go to bed early. I will somehow inform the reader that, say what you want about my mother, every night after a full day of work, she cooked dinner and we sat down together, even sometimes if this happened at ten o’clock, that no doubt part of what they resent about our rigid schedule is that they didn’t keep one because they were Working. The implications of our getting our kids to bed by seven are partially that we have chosen not to work hard enough at our “jobs.”
My mother will refuse to get out of the pool at seven because the children are having fun and it will be important in that moment to acknowledge that my mother loves to have fun with her grandkids. That the kids are in thrall of her and that it is pretty lovely that she and my father have the energy to swim in the pool with a three- and four-year-old for an hour after work in their sixties. I will say a couple of times that it’s time to get the dinner ready, that it’s getting late, that they’re still in the pool and it’s almost their bedtime.
It’s important to me in that moment to portray the “I” character as a little bitchy and controlling. I am both those things, most of all when it comes to my kids and their getting enough sleep. There will be a line then, from my father probably, in which he makes mention of the fact that I was never given strict bedtimes, never had any of the rules I’ve given my kids. And in that moment I will nod, my face still a little bitchy, and we will all acknowledge that we care about and value different things, that I don’t think I was raised particularly well or thoughtfully. That they don’t think I’m doing a particularly productive job as mom.
My mother will make the dinner and at every turn she will both try to placate me and also remind me subtly that she does things her way, always will. She will furtively, as will my father, attempt to get the children to like them more by explicitly breaking one of our rules: She will slip them sweets before dinner. We will tell the children they have to eat some of the chicken that she cooked just for them, but she will shake her head and never get the chicken out. We will silently fight over the juice she offers, over the change of clothes she brings down from a closet, over the movie that she turns on in the playroom when the children are too tired and too wound up to sit and eat.
There’s a beat here of just watching. My mother, who is very thin, will make enough food for three times as many people as are at this dinner. She will pile three bags of frozen broccoli onto two pans, cover another pan in asparagus. A bowl of pasta and a bowl of rice. There is watching her pour two bags of lettuce into a salad bowl, six hard-boiled eggs, three types of cheese. There are only four of us, I will say once, and my husband will look at me and mouth to me to stop it. She will keep pouring, not look at me, and I will, in this moment in the story, somehow allude to the fact that I have been both twenty pounds under and overweight in my life so far. I will allude to the fact that, as a result, I always feel both too big and too thin no matter what size I am. That I very seldom have any understanding of the size I actually am. But this is a difficult split to fit inside a short story. When I write about very thin women, which is what I’ve been more than I’ve been overweight, it is difficult to add to this the layer of the very thin woman who was also, for a while, when she was also pretty suicidal, pretty aggressively overweight.
The food will pile up revoltingly, aggressively, as we keep watching: crab cakes, cheese, fruit, vegetables, starches. Just don’t cook the rice, I’ll say to my mother, staring at the bowl of pasta already cooked for the children, and she will look physically uncomfortable at the prospect of not making the second bag. She’ll put the bag away after a standoff involving two barefoot 120-pound women looking but not talking to each other, standing closer to each other than they have in months or maybe years, and I will feel only as much pride at having won this moment as I feel sad for making her do a thing I know she doesn’t want to do.
After dinner, because they do not believe in leftovers, she will throw all of it away.
She will have made a pan of brownies from a box for the children whose sugar intake I also am cognizant of, or at least try to limit because the books I’ve read about their health tell me I should. I would portray, in the story I’m not writing, the ways in which this is, I think, my attempt to be responsible in my parenting, but also antithetical to the way that I was raised. In my mother’s pantry, which perhaps the “I” character will slip into to get napkins, I could note the stacks of food that no one eats but that is there, three boxes still of the granola bars I ate by the box in high school, as if to prove that it’s available, as some sort of on-the-nose and not quite right metaphor for all the love they tried to give that never quite felt nourishing. The gummy candy and the Hostess boxes, the sugary cereals I used to sneak into cups and eat in bed at night.
There would have to be a lot of silence in this story. The conversation will be stilted. When the children are in the room, everyone will focus everything they do or say on them. In this way also, the reader must be taught another language. As the children are given bathing suits with ruffles from the mother, the father will smile knowingly at the “I” character, who spent her whole life avoiding ruffles, throwing tantrums when she was two years old when her mother tried to put them on. There will be sparkly, plastic high-heeled shoes given to the children, which the “I” character will hate not just because they’re sparkly and high-heeled but because each child will fall at least twice while they wear them, because both the mother and the father will smirk at the “I” character as she tries not to flinch watching how much her children love these things she doesn’t love, as her parents stand triumphant, arms crossed, as if they’ve won. It should be noted here that winning and losing are the linchpin of this family. It is the only proper source of judgment, the only way to make sense of good or bad or right or wrong.
Close to the end of the night, time should slow down as the children come downstairs from the video my mother has turned on for them to say they’re tired, in which the three-year-old, who has now been up two hours later than she should be, after a full day at the beach, climbs onto my lap, and says, I’m tired, mommy, I want to go home. My mother’s plate at this point will be overflowing. She doesn’t allow herself to eat during the day and her small body will be slowly and methodically devouring each aspect of her meal. My husband and I will have finished. My father, who threw our homework away when we were in high school because it looked messy, will have already gotten up to start to clean.
My mother will get up then to cut the brownies that she made special for the children, her plate still mostly full, still having not eaten. She will look slightly pained at this point, as I rush to get us going, though I will hear in my head, the story she will later tell my older sister, how mean I was, how ungrateful, how exactly like I’ve always been. She will not, I know, even as I watch myself not stop it, be so very wrong. I will be furious, already, that she will have this to hold against me. I will be so sad to be hurting her again.
Mom, I told you, I will start to whisper, too defensive. Then she will say my name in the way that only mothers can say the names of daughters who have failed them. She will say it once, then she will say, I know. Then my name one more time.
We’ll serve the kids their sweets and they’ll eat a quarter of what she’s served them, the three-year-old saying she’s not hungry, curling into me, so soft and tired, warm and thick with sleep. I’ll shove the rest of her food into my mouth partially because I always feel the need to eat too much in front of my mother, partially because I don’t want to watch my father throw it in the trash can, partially because we never eat boxed brownies and my palette loves them more than the homemade ones my husband cooks.
There will be an added quick beat, that feels like too much for a short story, in which my father asks the children not to sit at the table to eat their dessert, that it might spill and this makes him nervous, there will be a quick scan then, or maybe earlier in the story, to show how not lived in the house looks because it is so clean, because there are so many rooms.
The denouement then, in the short story I’m not writing, will just be us driving. The three-year-old half-asleep. The four-year-old admiring, high from sugar, the sparkly high-heeled plastic shoes her grandma told her to take home. The denouement will be nothing really, because I cry much less now when I see my parents. We don’t yell anymore. It will be me saying a few sentences about how sad I feel on the drive home and my husband nodding and the kids pretending not to hear. We’ll get back to my husband’s parents’ house and put each girl to bed in the closet my father-in-law turned into a bedroom. They’ll be so tired that they’ll cry and whine and ask for extra sips of water until they finally pass out with my husband crawling into bed with them. The “I” character will set the alarm on her phone to go run fifteen miles the next morning before the kids wake up.
The “I” character will feel a need sometime in the middle of the night, to bring both the children into her bed and hold them close to her, to promise that she’ll never do to them what those people, who are her parents, whom she loves but also hates, did to her. She’ll want to promise she won’t be mean to them like she is to her parents, who just want to love her, who are trying hard most of the time. She will perhaps acknowledge here because it’s the end of the story, that this is her entire goal as a fiction writer: to show how often people try and fail to love one another, to unpack all the damage, all the consequences, unforeseen or unintended, this has wrought.
She won’t bring the children into her bed though, because this feels selfish and they’re tired, because they think they had a great day and don’t need to think anything but that. She’ll sneak a moment though back into their room and she’ll hug them. She’ll sit and watch them. She will realize for the millionth time that she still won’t love them well enough, that they will, no doubt, find ways to be annoyed by and resent her, that no matter how much, her love won’t be enough.