Using Family as Fodder
by Julia Clark Salmon
Before I started writing memoir, I couldn’t find my voice. After taking my first memoir writing class at the Multnomah Arts Center in Portland, I couldn’t shut my voice up. All those stories I’d been telling about my family over the years – to my friends, to my husband, to anyone who would listen – came pouring out on the page. Writing memoir seemed so much easier than fiction. Why make up characters, I finally realized, when I have so many good ones right in my own family?
When I turned to my siblings and parents, I found so much to write about. There’s the funny stuff like how we all suffer from “directional dyslexia” and end up in strange and unusual places. There’s the sad stuff like when my dad died from throat cancer. There’s the miraculous stuff like when my mom died from her heart attack, then came back to life after the priest gave her last rites. Then, of course, there’s the usual stuff: alcoholism, family feuds, misunderstandings, interventions, car accidents, weddings, divorces – all the things that happen to an American family in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
I’m not sure if my family is quirkier than most. It is possible – indeed, probable – that all families are equally quirky. But I do know that my family places a high value on our quirks. We are all readers and writers who love a good story, even (or especially) if we are the butt of it. So when VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions accepted “Bennett’s Outing,” I assumed my family would celebrate.
The story is about how my father reacts when he finds out his oldest grandchild, William, is gay. While writing the story, I tried to be honest, loving and funny … in that order. I used my family’s real names and, as much as possible, tried to replicate their conversations. Before publication, I sent the story to William’s mother (my sister, Jill) who responded, “I love it! It’s perfect!”
I sent it to William himself who said he was too shy to actually read it, but he “would never come between an artist and his or her art.” Since William is a writer himself, I took him at his word. I sent the story to my mother, a bit nervously because I call my dad “somewhat pompous” in it. My mom’s response? “I love it, Jule! And Dad WAS somewhat pompous!” So I agreed to publication with a happy heart.
The big day came and the reaction from my family was not what I had anticipated. Yes, two out of my three siblings sent comments saying they loved the piece. Lots of friends posted “likes” on Facebook, along with encouraging compliments. But there was a strange silence from Jill’s family. No “likes.” No comments. Nothing. Finally, late in the day of publication, one stray “like” came in from Jill. But no comment. I knew all was not well.
I got on the phone and called her.
“Hey,” she said. “I saw your story. Congratulations!” I could immediately tell by her voice she wasn’t that happy. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Didn’t you like it? You’ve seen it before!”
“Yeah, but, I don’t know. Are you sure you’re not making fun of William?” she asked.
“What do you mean? What part are you talking about?” I was feeling really nervous. I love William as much as my own kids and I would never intentionally hurt him.
“I don’t know,” she responded. “Well, maybe the part about him wearing the Little Orphan Annie outfit when he was little? I don’t think he actually did that.”
“Jill! Why didn’t you tell me that before? You said you liked the piece!”
“Well, I wanted to encourage you. I didn’t really think about the publishing part. Or that you would post it on Facebook. And I think maybe I look kind of like a fool in it, too.”
My heart sank. Now I had embarrassed my sister, the sister I look to for my best advice about life AND writing. “What does William think?” I asked.
“Well,” she replied, “he’s seen it, but he still hasn’t read it. He’s okay with it still, but he kind of wishes you hadn’t used his real name.”
Oh, shit. Now I felt really bad. I felt like crying. But I tried not to, because I didn’t want Jill to know I felt bad, because then she would feel even worse.
“Oh, well,” I said. “Maybe no one will read it. Anyway, you guys are on the East Coast. I’m sure this is just my own little flash in the pan.” I got off the phone as quickly as I could.
Later that day, I emailed William and said I hoped I had not offended him in any way. He wrote back a most generous reply, saying, among other things, “Psh! Don’t worry about it one bit! I use real people and situations in my fiction all the time, so it would be hypocrisy for me not to expect others to do the same. Please be happy that you wrote a thing that everyone likes and that has been published!”
A few hours later, I got a text from Jill saying, “William now worried about you! God, this is ridiculous! He says you should be enjoying your success … I agree so let’s leave it at that. You did a great job!”
So I will try to leave it at that. But the bloom is off the rose. Publication has its problems. I think, in the future, I may try to limit the things I say about my extended family – although they are a huge part of my life. Or I may not. We’ll see. In the meantime, the names in this essay have been changed to protect the innocent.
Welcome to the latest article in our Writers on Writing series, where authors share how they do what they do: Find inspiration, create drafts, make choices on how – and what – to add, subtract, revise. In this series, each author will offer insights into her creative process that we hope will inspire your own.
Julia Clark Salmon is a writer who works as an instructional assistant in the Beaverton School district, teaching reading, writing and shoe-tying to children in the primary grades. Before having her own children, she worked as a writer and editor for two national newspapers for children. She is also the co-author of Quarky and Quayzoo’s Turbo Science.