Continuing to respond to your requests for blog posts about particular topics, I turn my attention this week to the question of how I’m able to write about my parents again and again while coming at that material from fresh angles.
To be honest, sometimes I worry about my returning to the story of my family over and over. I worry that readers will eventually tire of my writing about the accident that cost my father both of his hands when I was barely a year old and the rage he brought into our home throughout my childhood and on into my teenage years. Then I think about what a notable writer said—maybe it was Fitzgerald, maybe it was Flaubert (some of you will surely know)—about a writer being lucky to figure out early on what his obsessions were and to spend a lifetime writing about them.
No single event in my life has shaped the rest of it the way my father’s accident did. I keep trying to write myself out of it, but I never quite succeed. That’s why I have to go back and tell it again. The key to writing about the same material over and over is to find a fresh perspective. I try to change the camera’s lens. For example, I just finished an essay about my grandmother—my father’s mother—and her blindness and her belief in the faith healer, Oral Roberts. Through her story, I approach the story of my father in this piece called “The Healing Line.” The central event of the narrative is a moment I’ve written before from my own perspective. Writing about it this time, I look at it through my grandmother’s perspective, through the circumstances of her life, and I find something new because I do that.
In another newly finished essay, my father’s story comes to the page through the story of a night when a strange young man, lost and confused, came into our house. I use his desperation, his cry for help, his reaching out to my mother as a way of thinking about the secret anger we were trying to keep hidden inside our home.
My key, then, to revisiting the same material numerous times is to always find a different lens through which to see that which won’t leave me alone. My obsession, it seems, is never ending, as, of course, true obsessions always are, but the position from which I see is always moving, using different characters or situations as my viewfinder. The end result for me is a fuller picture of my own experience. I learn something new with each essay that I write. If the material is richly complicated, as this story of my family is, I’m not sure one will ever run out of new ways to explore it as long as the writer is open to the slightly off center perspective that other characters or stylistic choices can provide.