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The Writing Life

August 9, 2019

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

My youngest babe recently asked me how it was that I started writing about “all this stuff” in the first place. It’s hardly an unusual question, and often comes from folks who genuinely like to write and are even quite good at it, but somehow never find the time or mental space to take it up as more than a here and there kind of thing.

Or are too timid about their prose to ever consider showing it to anyone.

The fact is, a lot of folks think up fantasy scenarios and might even dabble in getting their thoughts down – in a diary, perhaps. But “congenital” writers somehow manage to make writing a complusive habit. Despite the fact that many of us writer types are very interior people, we seem to feel the need to have others actually read our work, too. It’s quite a conundrum.

This girl is always full of questions (and she’s a great writer, too)

“I’m not just asking about the made up stuff,” my daughter clarified. “I mean when you write about Nana and us and all of that. Were you writing about real things, too, when you were little and showing them to your friends and teachers?”

This seemed simultaneously fascinating and mortifying to her. She’s already heard her brother and sister complain about how some of their classmates have read my books and worse – looked up my blog. A girl who had a crush on my son actually poured through everything I’d ever written about him, basically making the poor kid wish he could change his name and move to another state. I didn’t even write anything particularly embarrassing or all that private – at least from my perspective.

But writing personal essays is a bit like inviting someone into your home. Even if you don’t spill your guts to them, or blather on about anything too cringey, they still get to sample your cooking, get a feeling for your aesthetic, and have a long, hard look at the pictures you’ve chosen to frame. They get a glimpse into the family dynamic and note whether you drink one or two glasses of wine with dinner, you know what I mean? It’s all a bit intimate – there’s no doubt about that.

Still, I suppose without even realizing it, I’d set a place for the reader at my table long, long ago.

This really is my table

When I chose to write about family lore, I made a conscious decision to take a very big risk and expose not only my heart, but the hearts of those I love most. I did it in a pretty balls-out way, publishing my very first effort in the New York Times of all places. My Modern Love essay (“The Wrong Kind of Inheritance”) was about how my mom and I had always had a distant and complicated relationship when I was growing up, but became close after my infant daughter (the one in the “two-face” picture who loves asking all the questions) was born with cancer. I really did scrape it up from the depths of my soul.

It was a task that not only left my head spinning during the day, but gave me night sweats.

I’d never written a personal essay before then. Never even considered it. In fact, I didn’t even know much about the Modern Love column until my best girlfriend, a NYT stringer, told me “You have to write one!” after one of our long and winding telephone conversations during that awful time.

To top it off, however daunting it was to make sense of what was happening in my own life during my baby daughter’s fight for her’s, I also had to figure out how all of this fit in with the people in my family and their harrowing life experiences. Ones I’d been hearing about since I was in diapers, but had never felt the right to claim.

Czech secret police photo

This is an actual Czech secret police surveillance photo

As many of you know by now (at least those of you who have been a part of Cold Readers Club for more than a day or two), my family story is a two-hanky drama that gives Dr. Zhivago a run for its money. An epic adventure, it spans a World War, a Cold War, and a romantic, democratic revolution. There are more conflicting emotions and traumatic memories in my clan than there are mosquitos on a hot summer night. The amount of love and poetry and rapturous rage spewed at our table during an average family dinner takes many broods a lifetime or two of holiday parties, weddings, and funerals to amass.

I mean really, how many people out there have a dad whose own father was shot by a firing squad in his backyard when he was just a teen? A mother who was named an Enemy of the State when she was only twelve? Don’t even get me started on the rest of them.

“Please,” my girlfriend said. “I can feel the magic just talking to you.”

The magic. I think every writer has some idea of magic. It’s what makes us write in the first place, gives us our ideas, and draws us into a profession that’s right up there with movie stardom, pro sports and national politics when it comes to swinging for the fences. It makes us wrestle with our introverted selves, getting us to spill our blood and expose our innermost thoughts and fears to any stranger who happens upon our scribbles.

And I won’t deny it. I did feel the magic. My family had been fueling my fiction – everything from improv comedy skits to Cold War thrillers – for years. In retrospect, it now seems inevitable that I would come to tackle some form of more personal writing instead of always hiding behind the thick, velvet curtain of fiction. Always getting to manipulate exactly how the story will end.

Because that’s really what it’s about, these more personal narratives. What truly seperates them from fiction, apart from the obvious. It’s a level of exposure – when done right – that helps us draw broader themes from deeply personal experiences, paint them with some artistry, but doesn’t really allow us to control the reader’s perceptions or even our own. Because like a real conversation, the close kind that goes to places well beyond small talk, the reader is bringing her own story to the party, too, and catching you, the writer, in a candid moment…almost unawares.

This should have been our Christmas card


  1. I’m very glad I found you, and now look forward to reading your posts as they are published.

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