The toll of personal writing

by mymothersbrain

My aunt pushed herself away from the table and the magazine lying on it. “Won’t writing about this hurt you?” she asked.

“Of course not,” I said immediately, my words pushing past the tension in my stomach. But then I paused. What did she mean, exactly?

My aunt had come into town with her son (my cousin) who was moving his firstborn to college for her freshman year. My mom grew up as part of a large, boisterous and happy family. But the sister to whom she has always been closest is this aunt who stayed in my home last week. I spent many a day in the company of my cousins, in their home and mine. My aunt never learned to drive, so when I was growing up, my mother drove all of us kids to the public pools in the summer. As we grew up and went our own ways, my mother drove my aunt and herself to prayer meetings, to their volunteer work, to visit family in Juárez. They were sisters, but they were best friends, too.

Cousin and aunt arrived at my home just as D magazine published my very personal and emotional piece addressing a trauma my mother and I share – a trauma that no mother and daughter should ever have to share, and one that she no longer remembers due to the Alzheimer’s. You can read the piece here:

My aunt’s English is less than perfect, so I didn’t expect her to read it. But the magazine was lying on the table, and she read the whole thing. Admittedly, she was stunned that I would lay out such an intimate part of my life – and my mother’s life – for the world to see. Which is why she asked about the consequences of publishing such a story. But what she really wanted to know is if others will look at me differently for being so open about a dark part of our family’s past. The question made me realize a couple of things.

First, I see how much I take for granted. I assume that family and strangers alike see true freedom as something we reach by mining our lives and sharing them with others. And I’m not talking about just laying out the bright stuff, the funny incidents that never lose their power to make us laugh. I’m talking about also occasionally digging up and sharing those ugly, painful things that simultaneously make us shake our heads at life’s cruelty and marvel at our resilience. These are the stories that we tend to bury in shame so that they poison our bodies and spirits. Not that sharing them should be undertaken lightly. I hope that when I write these stories, I exercise care and respect. But no matter how careful I am in telling family stories, I acknowledge words’ inherent power to hurt and destroy, whether or not they are intended that way. Every time I write something personal, a flicker of unease courses through my belly: Did I write this for the right reasons? Will it hurt someone I love?

The second thing I realized was that I didn’t want my aunt to read this. Not yet, anyway. Because she is seeing grandkids off to college for the first time and that’s stressful enough. Because, like me, she is mourning my mother’s decline, and I didn’t want to add to her emotional burden. But mostly because it made me uncomfortable to see her read it. I’m not backtracking here. I believe in the power of the personal essay, in the power of memoir. I can’t not write about my life. This need to tell personal stories is innate. And like the artists with whom I spend time at the Macondo Writing Workshops, I believe that words have the power to enlighten and to save lives by exploring our common humanity and showing where our paths converge rather than diverge. This goes for both the reader and the writer. Never do I feel less alone in this world than when I read the words of people with whom I have something in common. It can be healing to see my reflection in someone else’s words. And I hope those on similar personal journeys feel like they’re not solitary travelers when they read my words.

Still, the personal stories exact a toll. When I write them, I draw deep from an emotional well that needs to be replenished before I can fully rejoin the world. And last week it was difficult to do that with a house full of family, including my aunt. Mostly I was thrilled to have every bedroom in my home occupied and to support my cousin’s daughter. A kid embarking on the college adventure is a celebratory occasion, after all. But a small part of me longed to simply cocoon myself in my room, to think of nothing and to answer no questions.

In some ways I am more like my aunt than my own mother. My aunt and I laugh at the same things. We speak our minds even when it’s imprudent to do so. We mean what we say, and when my language tends toward the colorful, she doesn’t criticize. She understood why I had to write this particular story. True to form, she didn’t criticize. She asked for her own copy of the magazine, even seeking my permission to share the piece with some of her friends.

Maybe there is a third thing I’ve realized from this whole experience. And that is that living far from family, I tend to write in solitude, and then remain there. I never thought of myself as reclusive, but maybe I’ve become that way as I’ve aged. And sometimes, it’s not solitude but family that I need in order to refill the well.