Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guest Blogger Allison Gilbert on her new book, Parentless Parents, and writing about family in nonfiction

Months ago I invited Allison Gilbert – who I like in person as much as I do as a writer – to guest post here in support of the publication of Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children (Hyperion). Allison chose to present an excerpt from the book along with insight about the process of writing about her personal life and family members in the pages of her nonfiction. As it happens, this coincides with the start yesterday of an online class of mine in which we are addressing writing about loved ones. I love coincidences like that.

Please welcome Allison Gilbert.

For the last few years, in my work as a writer, I’ve revealed some exceptionally private details about my life and exposed equally intimate stories about my husband and his family. I don’t omit the kind of information that might make a more private person cringe. I feel a great need to tell my story honestly. Why else go through the awful pain of writing? But the reality is, I am quite aware that the people I write about, these characters I create on the page, are the very same individuals I need to pass cranberry sauce to on Thanksgiving, and that makes the type of writing I do, complicated.

My family has been very supportive of me, and nobody has ever asked me to omit passages from my work they could easily have found objectionable.

And right there, in that last sentence I just typed, is the key to getting away with what I do: I show them what I’ve written before any comma, period, or colon gets printed. They don’t have editorial control, but they deserve to know what’s coming. Being blindsided would be uncomfortable for anyone.

Interestingly, the facts I write about never seem to be in dispute. I’ve never had to wrangle with a family member that a certain conversation actually took place. What does differ (and what often prompts the most interesting reactions) is how the same events or conversations often made each of us feel so differently.
My father-in-law once said something to me in passing, for example, that meant absolutely nothing to him – but hurt me so deeply I could never bring myself to talk with him about it. Years later as I was writing Parentless Parents, I decided to write about what he said. Instead of causing friction between us, bringing it out into the open through my writing brought us closer. Ultimately, I’ve found, the key to writing about my family has been showing them that I love and respect them enough to include them in the process.

This excerpt, taken from Chapter 7 of Parentless Parents, is an example of taking an exceptionally private moment public. My husband and I had gotten into a wicked fight about his mother, the kind of conversation you would never want your mother-in-law to hear. When it was finally time for me to show her the following passages, I held my breath until she finished reading.

The worst fight Mark and I ever had ended in a volcanic explosion of Doritos. When the neon dust finally settled, it seemed not an inch of our kitchen floor was clean. Days later, I was still sponging orange powder from the cereal cabinet and silverware tray. Our argument began because I didn’t want Mark’s mother coming over to our house – again. Marilyn is a wonderful mother-in-law. Warm. Loving. A fantastic grandma. But on that day, at that minute, I had reached my in-law limit.
It was July 4th weekend, and we’d just spent nearly the entire holiday with Mark’s family. We had gotten up early Saturday morning and gone to New Jersey to spend the day with his mother and our two nieces at his sister’s house. That night, after Mark’s mom headed back to her home a few miles away, we went with all the cousins to see fireworks with Mark’s dad and stepmother.
Sunday morning, we were at home finishing a late breakfast when the phone rang. Mark went into our bedroom to find the receiver (it’s cordless and we constantly lose it) and within minutes he returned to the kitchen and gleefully announced, “Grandma’s coming over in an hour, guys!”
"Today?!” I asked, clearly not thrilled with the idea.
“She just has a little laundry to do,” Mark explained. At the time, Marilyn lived in an apartment building about 25 minutes away and came over about twice a month to do a load or two and see her grandchildren.
“Can’t she come over next weekend?”
“All-i-son,” he said in exasperation. Mark pronouncing every syllable of my name is the verbal equivalent of putting his foot down -- which only angered me more. I shot him a look that I had hoped Jake and Lexi didn’t see. My voice began to rise.
“Can’t we just have a day to ourselves?”
“No, Allison. She has laundry to do to-day.”
“But I want to spend the day with just you and the kids. Just us!” Jake and Lexi were at this point looking up from their plates and I was uncomfortably aware that they were hearing me say that I didn’t want their grandmother to come over. But I couldn’t help myself. To the core of my being, I didn’t want her to come over. Marilyn’s the one woman who reminds me most of my mother’s absence, and on that day I just needed a break.
“She’ll only be here for a few hours!” Mark yelled, clenching his fists into tight, violent balls.
Mark is generally easy-going and hard to upset, and for the first time since I’d known him, I was scared he was going to punch his hand through the kitchen window. But I didn’t relent. I couldn’t. “We spent all day with her yesterday! Please,” I pleaded.
Mark was furious, and I knew it was all because of me. And while he didn’t strike the glass as I had feared, he started pummeling the unopened bag of Doritos on the kitchen island. He punched it again and again until pulverized chips spewed everywhere. Instantly I was sorry for what I had done – mostly because Jake and Lexi saw and heard everything.

So how did my mother-in-law react when she read these passages? Was she angry with me? Offended? No, it turns out these potentially hurtful words made her feel closer to me. For so long, she said, I’d kept her in the dark, and refused to let her “in.” Ultimately, these passages sparked a thread of conversations we never would have had otherwise. And it’s because of them – that my mother-in-law have never been closer.

Note from Lisa
: Learn more about Allison’s new book Parentless Parents by watching the book trailer on YouTube. Allison is also the founder of Parentless Parents, a new and growing nationwide network of parents who have experienced the loss of their own mothers and fathers. You can join the conversation by visiting Parentless Parents on Facebook. If you would like a free signed copy of Parentless Parents, leave a comment here by midnight February 21 (US postal addresses only); one name will be drawn at random.


Alyssa C. said...

This is what strikes me most about Allison's guest post:

"My father-in-law once said something to me in passing, for example, that meant absolutely nothing to him – but hurt me so deeply I could never bring myself to talk with him about it"

I do that same exact thing. There are things that have been deeply moving or traumatizing for me but I have never told anyone, and suspect that in mentioning them in my writing, they would realize they'd never even meant to say or do them! It's quite strange. I really related to that point. Sounds like a fantastic book and I'd love to read it :)

Anonymous said...

Both my parents are dead. My mother died at age 72 and my father at age 84. I am age 62 and I miss my father more than I can write. I believe my mother willed herself to die after rearing 5 children quite successfully. The relationship with my mother was strained, at best, and with my father we were quite simply pals. UNTIL he married the wicked witch of the west and she destroyed his relationship with his children.

I am in process of writing a book about my life and want desperately to write about the loss of my father before he died. How I had to grieve the loss for 10 years, after the marriage to the c--t, not after his death. His death brought such a relief to his 5 children because SHE would no longer be a part of our lives.

I haven't decided how to write this sensitive piece of my life as I am still so angry and sad at the loss I and my 4 siblings endured for 10 years. If there is a God, then I ask for guidance on how to write this piece.

I am not a parent but I am a woman who has lost her parents.

All the best,
judith pepper

Unknown said...

It will be six years on Tuesday that my mom passed away. My dad was not the best husband but when my husband, myself and our family moved to another state and my mother's health was deteriorating my dad started to take care of her. Dad remarried, "the woman from hell." I think because he didn't want to be alone, and this womwn hid the devil within her by lies, many lies of which I am still finding out.
Dad is staying with my family now, he just turned ninety and is frail and lonely. I see him looking at pictures of my mother. I wonder what he is thinking. Is he sorry for the way he treated her? In my heart I believe he is. Do I remember the pain my mother was in when he treated her so badly. It is always with me and made me a stronger person. Do I forgive this man who is now frail and lonely? Yes I do.

Allison said...

Hi Alyssa, Judith, and Lila --

Thank you so much for taking the time to voice your reactions to this post on Lisa' blog. It means so much to me...It seems that we all have so much in common, yet the experiences are unique in the sense of how they impact us, and our families. I'll be interested in learning what happens to your writing as you move forward in your individual works....More than anything, writing such personal details has the potential to be quite healing....

Lisa Romeo said...

The book is yours! Thanks for participating.