Over the weekend, I was at my aunt’s house and I was looking for a fork. I opened every kitchen drawer and found no silverware. Finally, I gave up and asked where a guy might find a fork? Turns out that my aunt has a concealed drawer that opens up above a drawer that holds ordinary kitchen utensils. Who knew? A secret drawer that holds the silver. My aunt said in jest, “That’s to keep people like you from stealing the silver.”
Writers steal all the time, and often we steal from the people we love. We’re always after that secret drawer, the one that would go unnoticed without our efforts. We want to pull that sucker open and shout to the world, “Look at this!”
Another one of my aunts was displeased with me when I “borrowed” a family tale she told me that I put into a short story. That story ended up being published in Yankee magazine, which I thought my aunt would never see. She didn’t, but a neighbor staying at a B and B in Vermont did, and she carried word back to my aunt who was mortified. It wasn’t proper to reveal a family story even if it was disguised as fiction. “I’m never telling you anything again,” my aunt said. “You’ll just put it into a story.”
Guilty as charged. I’m always looking for anything I can use in a piece of writing, whether it be a small detail like the fact that another aunt lit her cigarettes from a gas burner on the stove, or something larger like the fact that when my grandfather was going to lose the family farm and asked my uncle for help, my uncle refused. I’m always on the lookout for the small things that make up the texture of a life and the large decisions that have consequences for years to come. Often, a writer knows the world best through his or her own family.
“Once a writer is born into a family,” Czselaw Milosz said, “that family is doomed.” We might as well accept it. A writer is expert at the art of revealing what people suppress or perhaps don’t even know they carry. We cut through the masks that people wear. We get down below the skin to the truth of who people are when they’re alone in the dark. Along the way, we’re going to hurt some feelings, perhaps even risk relationships that matter greatly to us, all for the sake of the art.
What’s a family secret you wouldn’t want known? Tell the story of it. Be ruthless. Tell it all, no matter how ugly it is. Feel what it’s like to write close to the bone. You never have to share this with anyone. It’s your choice. But for the sake of everything that you’ll eventually write, you need to feel what it’s like to say the hard things, to lay oneself open, to be honest and direct. Don’t wait. Do it now.