So often, memoir includes writing about other people in our lives. How do we make those others come alive to readers?
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that in writing memoir, we should try to see ourselves as characters who have strengths, weaknesses, motivations. And that’s true for writing about others in our lives, too.
But if you’re like me, not everyone you write about in your memoir is a person you have only good feelings toward. In fact, we might feel resentment, rage, disappointment or even hate toward certain people who appear in our stories.
In my experience, it’s difficult to write well while experiencing negative emotions.
Also, if we write our negative feelings into these unpleasant other characters, two unfortunate things can happen to the memoir:
- We, the writers, begin to sound unpleasant at best, or full of resentment at worst, both of which will turn most readers off.
- The unpleasant others come across as one-dimensional, which is boring, especially if they occupy more than a very minor role in the story.
One solution to this difficulty of writing about unpleasant, disappointing, or toxic people is simply this: do not write about them. Cut them out of your story, just as you may have wished to cut them out of your life. You have the power. It’s your story, and no one else’s.
Another solution is to get in touch with the love you feel or felt for the person. See that person in your mind’s eye and imagine your heart opening. See the person as he was as a child. See the person as she was when you loved her most. See the person as a fellow struggler against suffering and despair.
Human relationships are so very complicated, and it’s so very possible to feel both love and hate for one person, even at the same time. And that is never boring.
When I reunited with my birth family nearly thirty years ago, I found I had five brothers and a sister. My brothers all suffered from addiction, and if you know anything about addiction, you know that it’s a family disease. Everyone in the family suffers. My feelings for my brothers were a mix of love, frustration, and even rage, especially when their addictions damaged their children.
Are you feeling bored yet? If not yet, you would become bored soon if I kept on in this vein. And you wouldn’t see my brothers as individuals; they’d become stereotypes.
My youngest brother, David, was the most severely addicted one. Here’s a scene I wrote while trying to touch the love I felt for him, even while he was at his weakest. In the scene, my sister Belinda and I are visiting him in the nursing home he’d been sent to when he was thirty-eight years old.
David’s nursing home allowed patients to smoke in one common room, and in a chain link fenced yard, so we’d bring him cigarettes, too. There was no point in denying him anything he wanted as his life inched toward its certain end, although we didn’t know how quickly that end would come.
I can still see him now in the chain link yard where we went to escape the air conditioning that was too much for all three of us. Wrapped in a thick sweater, he sat beside me and Belinda in his wheelchair with a lit cigarette in one hand, while pawing at Belinda’s arm with his other hand, saying, “Give me a cigarette, Belinda.”
The only thing left besides his restless cravings was his love for his sisters, and his daughter Brandi, and the rest of the family. The diabetes, the heart disease, and the years of active addiction had whittled him hollow, from the inside out.
Other men and women like David inhabited the nursing home, people who should have been in the prime of their lives, but whose brains and muscles and bones and nervous systems had been decimated by chronic drug use and the violence that so often comes with it. I’d expected beds full of frail little old great-grandmas and great-grandpas.
But instead, there were vacant-eyed people in their thirties and forties prowling the hallways like zombies. The man who’d lost a leg to an infection caused when he’d tried too hard to open up a collapsed vein to shoot heroin. The woman whose head had been bashed in by a john when she was out tricking for money for crack. The semi-comatose overdose victims.
An orderly was stationed in the smoking room to prevent fights, and to stop the stronger patients from taking advantage of the weaker ones like David. Belinda worried constantly, and I did too, but this place had been the only one that would take our brother.
When Brandi met us there one day with her newborn daughter Paris, she passed her baby to her father without any wariness. David held his granddaughter, looking at us all with a new wonder in his eyes, stronger than what he greeted me and Belinda with each time we visited as if to say “You came for me, for me, for me.” He cradled the baby gently as his muscle memory resurrected itself and all the fatherly tenderness he’d showered on Brandi returned.
Something in his peripheral vision distracted him, and he reached toward Belinda with one hand while still protecting Paris with his other arm. “I want a grape soda from the machine, Belinda, a grape soda.”
Sugar, and alcohol, and pain pills, and crack cocaine. Love had been enough to relieve him of his cravings for months at a time in the past, to keep him focused on his daughter without falling prey to distractions. But now, love didn’t work for but a few minutes.