Scared to Write the Full Truth About Your Family Members? I Hear You
The Power of AND – When It comes to Writing the People in Your Life
I’m going to write a sentence that shocks even me.
My father was both a racist and not a racist.
When I go to write about him, I find I can’t write one without the other. Writing about one would be only half the picture. It was only when I capture both that I capture my father.
Let me explain a bit more.
My father struggled with people of color. He also fought in the Civil Rights era. In 1964, he stood with a baseball bat outside polling places and made sure that black people were allowed to vote safely.
He sometimes said disparaging things about Mexicans. Yet at his funeral, the Mexican waiters from his retirement home came and cried over his casket. He had become their champion, sent them cards or money for college, and cheered on their victories. One of them held my hand as we placed dirt on the grave, and he said, “I will never forget him, he helped me see what I could be.”
But how can this be, you wonder? How can someone be both a racist and not a racist? Or a sexist in some situations and not a sexist in others? Or wildly selfish and also unselfish? A lech and not a lech? A thief and not a theif?
The reason is that we are complex beings who live in the real world of “and.” We travel in the light, and we travel in the dark.
In my experience – we are often afraid of the “and.”
We often have a hard time reconciling that people may be multi-faceted, contradictory, and complex because we yearn for simplicity. We yearn to understand, to have real and true clarity. We want our good guys to be good guys and our bad guys to be bad.
We hold people up in the public eye as good or bad, innocent or guilty, compassionate or cold, angry or calm. Then when we see the other side, we are shocked, saddened, or dismayed. Our worlds don’t make sense anymore. “But I thought he was one of the good guys…” I sometimes hear people say.
I believe the main reason we do this is because our own primal, darker side scares us. Maybe it’s because we have been ostracized, condemned, shamed, or shunned when we have shown these sides. Maybe it’s because we fear the consequences if we show these sides. Maybe it’s because we were never taught how to hold both parts of the self – the dark and the light – and to be okay with the whole package.
I’m continually inspired by one of my bold and brave writers, Donna, who is capturing the complex picture of her husband in her new memoir. Her husband was a problem gambler who spent all of their money and ended up taking his own life. But as we read the book, we see the full picture. He was a good man and a loving father. He was bright and hard working. He provided respite, sanity, and support in the places her family of origin never could. For many years, he was a strong partner and an excellent provider. In the end, he was both a gambling addict and a really good man.
Or Kelly, who writes about her drug-addicted parents who were always one step away from homelessness or jail, and who took and used their food stamps only on themselves while Kelly worked three jobs as a 16-year-old, just to get by. Yet when I read her first draft, I realized the book was a love letter to her parents. Free-spirited and full of life, her parents taught Kelly the joy of now. They loved her fiercely, danced with her, shared their love of nature with her and instilled a sense of adventure within her spirit that shines to this day. Her parents were both self-absorbed drug addicts and loving magic makers.
Don’t shy away from the “and” of it all. I mean within yourself and your writing. If your dark side comes a calling – acknowledge it – give it a voice. You don’t have to act from that place, but allowing the space for it can be amazingly healing. You are not sick, twisted, messed up, or worthless because you have a dark side. You are human. And the chances are that if you start providing tolerant compassion to yourself, it might extend to others in your life.
And get this:
If you can appreciate the complexity of the human experience, and strive to capture it on the page, then you will be offering your reader the nectar they have been most thirsty for, understanding that they are not alone.
When you capture a person or a character that lives in the light and the dark places, just as your reader does, they will see a reflection of themselves, of their own human experience.
By writing in this way, you are lifting the veil that reveals that not one of us is truly alone – but in fact, we are all living in this complex, confusing, and beautiful land together.
Important Note: I am in no way condoning behavior that is hurtful or harmful. And if someone has hurt you, it is perfectly fine to hold them accountable. My aim in this post is to open up a conversation about accepting and allowing that many (often conflicting) traits may exist within the same person.