“The Writer in the Family”

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This week’s lecture posed the questions: “Why do you write? What does it mean for you to be a writer? What do you want your stories and novels to do?”

I write because I love to write. Even when I don’t love what I’m writing or when the pain of writer’s block sets in, I continue to write because I love writing. It’s who I am. I’m a writer. I want my stories to fulfill my need to write them.

In the short story “The Writer in the Family,” E.L. Doctorow opens: “In 1955, my father died with his ancient mother still alive in a nursing home.” As a reader, I’m chuckling uncomfortably already and asking myself questions. For one, why doesn’t he refer to his father’s mother as grandma, nana, mum-mum or any other cutesy name we tend to use when describing our parents’ parents?

“The Writer in the Family” grabbed me immediately. Maybe it was the empty way the narrator spoke of his recently deceased father or maybe it was Doctorow’s snarky “ancient mother still alive in a nursing home.” The way the story is narrated is both bitter and funny, and I love that. Would she have been dead in a nursing home? It also reminds me of the way we as people speak sarcastically of our families when we have deep-rooted, hard to understand issues with them.

Non-writers get to simply speak this stuff out. Whether the stuff, if you will, is good or bad, they talk about it, deal with it and move on. They brag about their kids at family functions, bash their in-laws in the form of a joke at a cocktail party, update a passive aggressive Facebook status or two, and/or commiserate mutual marital problems with friends over coffee. Or maybe they skip all of those middle men (and women) and go directly to a psychiatrist. Well, writers write. This is how we deal with it… whatever it is.

The part in the story I most related to came early. “You’re the writer in the family,” the narrator’s aunt says. She butters him up with flattery, lays on the guilt and then asks him to write a fake letter to his grandmother pretending to be his father. The narrator clearly doesn’t want to do this. Who would? But he goes on: “That evening, at the kitchen table, I pushed my homework aside and composed a letter.” He writes the letter and the aunt is brought to tears by it.

Being the writer in my family has its advantages and disadvantages, too. I get to be the “artistic” and the “creative” one. However, I also get to be the “moody” and “obsessive” one. I can’t argue. I am all of those things. I get to write all the resumes (my dad once said “you made me sound like me only better.”), cover letters, eulogies, holiday card messages, love poems, complaint and/or thank you letters which typically start out “dear sir or madam.” I get to proofread all the homework (well, all but math). Last week my brother Frank called and asked me to write him a “fake note” saying why he kept his 16-year-old son, my nephew C.J., home from school. When he argued that “raging diarrhea” wasn’t a good enough reason, I argued it was much better than “I took him to the Eagles game. They lost… again.” Even though these things can be, at times, annoying, I say “I get to…” because, even when it feels like a curse, it is still a privilege to write.

As Doctorow’s story continues, the letters (and the guilt) progress and they weave into a sort of life story. It’s not a true story but in a way that doesn’t matter. It becomes Jonathan’s father’s story, a legacy of sorts, and though it begins as a way to protect the frail dying grandmother, it becomes something bigger. The letters help the family to grieve and they help Jonathan learn and come to terms with his father’s life and death, as well. Even when Jonathan expresses his desire to stop writing the letters, he can’t. He needs to do this. He is being called to do this. Not simply by guilt or grief or love or some sort of family obligation, but by that inner voice inside of him who tells him who and what he is. Like you and me, he is a writer.

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