[Another entry in the ongoing blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]
by Molly Howes
For years, I’ve been trying to write a childhood memoir.
I wanted to write about my years in an orphanage, because, by definition, my mother would be absent. It pisses me off that her absence is so present in those stories.
I wanted to write about a young girl’s efforts to recover from great loss and define herself. It pisses me off that I now find myself writing about how I am like her as an adult, for god’s sake.
I wanted to write about a child (me). It pisses me off that teachers and agents (and some classmates—you know who you are) always want to hear more about the fascinating mother character (her).
I also wanted to write shorter pieces about wisdom I’ve achieved over a long lifetime of thoughtful living and observing. It pisses me off that many of them are essentially circling the same subject matter: repairing, apologizing, trying again, healing from damage—which I fear is all about what I wasn’t able to do with her.
What, you might ask, would be so wrong with writing about my mom?
Reasons I’m not writing a book about my mother, damn it:
- I don’t like her. She was not a good or kind or contributing person.
- She doesn’t like me. She thought very bad things about me, most of which I have finally begun to realize are not true.
- She was the most important person for a lot of my life already and that’s more than enough of my life to devote to her.
- I don’t like thinking about her. Or about my relationship with her.
- I don’t like myself in relation to her. I’m critical and ungenerous in a way I hardly ever am to anyone else.
- I don’t think I can be balanced about her. Writing with an ax to grind is bad writing.
Other reasons she’s impossible to write about:
- She was incredibly change-able, was many different people throughout my life.
- She was missing from some periods of my childhood, so I made up stuff about her.
- She misrepresented herself and our circumstances so much that I don’t know what was true about her—or our family life.
- She maintained that she never lied about anything but that one was definitely a lie. Moreover, she was subject to a magnificent degree of distortion and downright delusion.
- Her representations of things changed, apparently willy-nilly, so it was hard to keep track of her story, even.
- It doesn’t work when I try to write about her, because I’m often presenting her as enchanting (from my young girl perspective), which pisses me off.
- I can’t find a way to capture her undermining meanness in my young adult years: it’s too evil-seeming, even though it’s true. It makes me seem unrealistic, a poor narrator, which—can you guess?—pisses me off.
Reasons I seem to be writing a book at least partly about my mother, anyway:
- Largely because of the difficult aspects of her (see above), she is actually an interesting character.
- Largely because of the difficult aspects of me (ditto), she is a compelling challenge for me to write about.
- She is the subject(s) with which I have the most discomfort.
- She might be the most interesting thing about me (which, you know, … ).
- My life course was both directly caused by her to some extent and indirectly, inside me, affected to a larger extent.
- I know that I am not completely different from her. The differences and similarities are at last interesting to me.
- Now I am the age she was when she was the most free and happy. I can see why she liked this age; my life feels more similar to hers than it ever has. (Of course, I am compelled to point out here that she also pursued her own inclinations when most of us would not have felt free, that is, when she had five young children.)
- Now I see that the mother I adored as a child was partly constructed by me. As such, that mother belongs to me, is my creation. So, in some ways, writing about her is actually writing about my child mind.
- I want to put some of this tension and resistance to rest. I believe that the best way to do it is to go to the Underworld on a quest to discover what I hate and fear. I will then no doubt emerge the victorious heroine, free of neurotic echoes and afterimages, fully my own person. Well, I’d settle for writing something worthwhile.
- I already finished my psychoanalysis, so shouldn’t I be well-equipped to deal with this stuff?
- The more I write about her, the easier it gets—maybe because I have less to lose: I keep exposing the least desirable aspects of myself.
Molly Howes is a relatively seasoned person but a relatively new writer. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times “Modern Love” column and the Boston Globe Magazine “Coupling” column. She hopes her children never feel compelled to write about her.