My family of writers are all stuck in the past

My relatives inscribe their unchangeable history on all of us -- who would like to be heard in the present!

By Cary Tennis

Published October 27, 2009 12:27AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

In my family there are several women who have writing talent, one of whom is my mother. I believe they are born writers. They need to write, and often they write well. Usually I've enjoyed the many stories they write about other family members -- often a combination of history and memorial. Lately, however, I am sick of all these memories! These writers are now in their 70s, a time for looking back, but this "looking back" has been going on for 25 years. I understand that they are making a wonderful and welcome contribution to our family records, giving many family members a sense of who they are and where they come from, a blessing in this rootless modern world. But all this time spent on thinking of yesteryear and mythologizing everyone has started to weigh me down and I want to get away from it.

I'm 46 and dealing with my own "who am I and what do I do next?" situation. Perhaps it makes me want to live more in the now than constantly thinking of the past and those who are gone. I still believe many good things in life are ahead of me, and suddenly I want to walk away from all these tombstones. I've suffered some painful losses in the past decade, and while my memories are fond and I feel I've handled the grief philosophically and emotionally, all this memorializing makes me feel like no one ever lets go and moves on. I know these stories are appreciated by my family members, and their writing functions as "therapy" for themselves and others. Yet, is it OK if sometimes I want to yell, "Let people rest in peace and stop spending so much time in the past!"?

Too Many Writers

Dear Too Many Writers,

Writing is a powerful tool we can use to inscribe our reality onto the body of a family or nation or individual. Used in that way, writing is a phallic, aggressive medium. But writing is also a tool for community and for exposure, allowing ignored or unrecognized contents of conscious to come into being in the view of others, allowing individual truths to come out and make their complementary marks on us. Because of your mother's place in the family, and the other elders, it may seem to you that she is inscribing a whole outlook or viewpoint on your very skin, so that you cannot escape it, and so that whatever you might say about your own present and your own past is said within this already-inscribed circumference. Your mother has defined you in this way. You feel enclosed, trapped, muted, bound by it.

In wanting to make your own statement and define yourself, you are focused on this behavior of your mother's, which you see as an obstacle. It may indeed be an obstacle. But the way to overcome it is not to focus on destroying the perceived obstacle, but to develop your own equivalent narrative, to inscribe your own truth on your own body, or your own reality in your own book. Your task is to take up the pen and write a counter-narrative, not one that attacks your mother's view but one that balances her narrative, which is heavy with the past, with one of your own that is alive with what you see and feel in the present.

Depending on how adventurous you are, and how much you want to involve your mother in this, you might try writing in a group with your mother. The Amherst Writers and Artists method might serve this purpose. If you knew of a facilitator of such groups in your area, you and your mother, and perhaps other family members, might join it and write together at the same time in the same room and thus reveal to each other, through this medium, the things that are important to you. In that way you would not have to destroy her narrative to make room for your own; there is room for all these narratives. And the method, if followed closely, allows within its framework for such a thing to occur without any additional explanation or attention. No one need know that is what is happening.

The AWA method follows a set of guidelines that eliminate hierarchy and accord equal value to each participant.

Families are hard to corral into such a thing, and indeed if it required corralling it might not be advisable, as it would then be tinged with a spirit of coercion. But it would be very interesting to do, if there was a general enthusiasm for it. If members of your family are interested, it might turn out to be an amazing, eye-opening experience.

I want to make clear that this method is not therapy. It is a method for writing. But I can imagine its being used to allow certain truths to emerge in a group of people such as a family, without those truths being challenged or criticized. It has been used in analogous fashion to allow members of silenced minorities to find a voice for their truths. So why not the members of a family, especially if certain members feel that they have been silenced by the more outspoken and powerfully inscribed narratives of another?

But the chief thing is for you to ask yourself what stories you want to be heard, and create your own counter-narrative. You have begun that with this letter. I suggest that you continue it. Write your own truth, in other words. Use writing, which is an ancient and powerful method of bringing knowledge and stories into the world, to bring into being this narrative of your own life that you feel is being ignored or trampled.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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