This series is about breaking the ten commandments in your writing—doing to your characters, or having them do, things you’d never want anyone to do to you.
Commandment #5: Honor your father and mother.
Judging from my Facebook feed around Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, you’d think my friends lived in some weird reverse Lake Wobegon—where all the parents are above average.
I can see two possible reasons for this:
- We remember, or at least talk about, only the good in people after they’re gone.
- Only the people with exceptional parents post about them on Facebook.
It’s got to be one of these two, because it’s a simple fact that we live in an imperfect world with imperfect parents. Some are just imperfect enough to make our lives interesting, while others are imperfect enough to make our lives miserable.
Flannery O’Connor said something like (I paraphrase):
Anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write about for the rest of his life.
Since our lives as children revolve around our parents, present or absent, this means (quoting myself):
Sooner or later, directly or indirectly, you’re going to write about your parents.
The question is whether you’ll do it honestly.
Here’s where we run headlong into the fifth commandment on a real-world level. If your parents listed toward the dysfunctional end of the spectrum, is it dishonoring them to write about them honestly?
This is a thorny question, one with a lot of facets and considerations. For one thing, it could make a big difference whether your parents are alive and what kind of relationship you have with them. It matters, too, whether they’re still the same kind of people they were when you were growing up. And it matters whether they’re likely to come after you with either a lawsuit or a shotgun if you write the truth.
But if you’re going to write about them at all—as I believe you inevitably will—it’s my belief you have to do it honestly. Because if writing is not honest, it doesn’t deserve to exist.
That doesn’t mean you have to create characters that precisely echo your own family of origin and depict what really happened there. In fact, I think it’s probably better if you don’t—both for the sake of keeping the fifth commandment and for the sake of writing your best fiction.
Unadulterated reality seldom makes the best fiction. It’s too messy, too full of contradictions. It doesn’t follow a neat plot arc. If the events of real life are translated into fiction, they’re generally either boring or unbelievable. And the ending is rarely as satisfying as we want our novel endings to be.
If you feel the need to write the true story of your childhood exactly as you remember it (which is probably not exactly as it happened), go ahead and do it. Get it out of your system. Share it with your spouse and your siblings if you want. Then burn it.
What I do suggest for writing about your parents is this:
- Wait until you have a little distance, a little understanding, some measure of forgiveness. You’ll probably have to write your way to full understanding and forgiveness; but it’s best to get there before you write “The End.”
- Write indirectly. Write about characters who struggle with their parents, but make them different from yourself and your parents. Give their story a proper plot arc and a satisfying conclusion. Don’t write the picture-perfect childhood you wish you’d had; but you can end with a reconciliation that may or may not ever happen in your own life.
- Be honest about your own struggles as the child of your parents. But be honest about them as people too. Put yourself inside their skin. Live their struggles and challenges. Get a grip on what made them tick. Cut them some slack—chances are you’re not perfect yourself. And if they’ve repented, let that knowledge inform what you write as well. Be truthful—but also be gracious. Be kind.
If you still feel you can’t write about your parents, even following these guidelines, without dishonoring them, you could always wait until they’ve passed on. I promise you they’ll have more perspective then.
An imperfect, or even a tragic, childhood can be a great gift for a writer. It can give you compassion and empathy, crucial qualities for a writer. It can give you the deep emotional experience you need to connect with your readers on an intimate level. And, of course, it gives you lots of material.
So if you can’t think of anything else to thank your parents for, thank them for that. Honor them by becoming the best writer you can be.