A writer’s responsibility

Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, once said, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Quoting a Nobel laureate makes me sound terribly erudite, doesn’t it? The truth is, I’d never heard of Czeslaw Milosz until I read Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure. Shteyngart used that quote in his book and it’s been rolling around in my head ever since.

It’s certainly true that we writers often use our families for material, if only because we draw on our experiences, many of which, particularly from our formative years, are inextricably entwined with theirs. If we borrow physical aspects or behavioral characteristics from a family member, the average reader will never know, but the borrow-ee will. Nervous family members may even find resemblances where none were intended.

In my blog, I often write explicitly about my family, making no attempt to hide a subject’s identity. I try not to “out” anyone’s secrets, or get too close to a subject that I think will upset someone, although it happened once. I wrote a post that hurt someone’s feelings and I was chastened, even though it wasn’t intentional and certainly not done with malice. I think if you’re going to claim as Milosz did, that the family is finished, the writer’s intent should be considered before guilt is assessed.

As a writer, I am intrigued by the feeling of power the quote gives me. As a reader, it is the phrase, the family is finished, that tugs at my heart. It sparked this thought: When a family member leaves, the family as you know it is finished. Since my first blog post in January, 2010, I’ve been remarkably restrained when it comes to writing about my estranged sister. A search of my posts confirms that not only have I never mentioned her by name, but this is the first time I’ve used the word estranged. When I read Milosz’ quote, the writer in me got tangled up with the child in me. I always thought that if I wrote about my absent sister I would be blamed for upsetting the family. And the fear of that has always been stronger than my urge to use her as material. But I’m over that.

In the earlier years, my sister was estranged from everyone in the family—except me. In deference to my other sister’s feelings, the absent sister was not spoken of at family gatherings; she was effectively “disappeared.” I was desperately unhappy with that decision, but no one seemed to care. That period was very painful for me, even when I, too, eventually became persona non grata.

My sister’s withdrawal from the family changed all of us. Her absence even had an impact on those who had not yet been born when she left. In her absence, the family reinvented itself. We are smaller, but no longer diminished. It’s been almost eighteen years since I last spoke to her, and I no longer want to. My heart was broken, but it has healed. I’m not interested in a rapprochement.

As a writer, I’m grateful for the material she left me with. Perhaps it’s true that, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” but my original family, the family I knew as a child, was not finished off by this writer.


8 responses to “A writer’s responsibility

  1. Lovely, albeit sad piece. Certainly thought provoking. It put me in mind of this David Sedaris piece I came across a few months ago: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/10/28/131028fa_fact_sedaris?currentPage=all

    Families are often difficult and messy. For many people, anyway. I don’t think I agree with the Milosz quote, though. Like you, I have kept my writing about family remarkably free of angsty details out of respect.

    I’m sorry about the absent sister. I have two absent-by-death brothers, and while our relationships were sometimes fractious, I miss them.

  2. I’m inclined to think that anything is fair game. If I wrote fiction, I wouldn’t hesitate to use all the anguish that families produce if it served my purpose. After all, it’s fiction. Now memoir–or biography–is another matter. But I’m inclined to think that honesty has considerable value.

  3. Very nice piece!

    “It’s been almost eighteen years since I last spoke to her, and I no longer want to. My heart was broken, but it has healed.”

    Yet still broken, as well, like mine

    Unchanged, no family survives
    longer than a slow summer evening by the low stone wall,
    a pet for a throttle and a tiny guitar.

    In that darkening moment, the light becomes internal.

  4. You should write a short story about her secretly reading your blog. If you don’t, I will. About her longing to contact you, but being too proud or scared, or something, following your life through your blog, etc. Remember the blog about your new window? She could even come over and look through it and then post a comment about the view from outside, but with an online name you wouldn’t recognize. Oooh, you better write this before I do.

    • Great idea, but I wouldn’t want anyone assuming that a fictional piece like that was me working out my “real” feelings, which is to say, you can write it. But it is a damn good idea…

  5. Very sad when families do fall apart in some ways but change does happen

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