All writing stems from the author’s obsessions. This is what Dani Shapiro told me and a room full of writers in a workshop held in Minneapolis this past spring. Whatever we can’t let go of, she said, whatever we keep coming back to, is most often what we end up figuring out on the page. I hadn’t thought of a writer’s subject matter in this particular way before but I nodded wildly in agreement from the front row.
My obsession exists in the form of a rough manuscript and it is aging, I hope, like a good wine (or at the very least an okay cheese) in a document on my desktop. The obsession in question, what my brain tumbles around like sneakers banging in the dryer, is the story of how I removed myself and my son from the once beloved religion of my childhood and how I inadvertently broke my mother’s heart in the process.
Like so many writers, voicing my obsession and maintaining peace within my family are at odds with one another. I need to decide what’s more important, getting this out or keeping my mother and I intact. This seems strange since I did not, in any way, have a Glass Castle childhood. (It’s a rare thing for a memoirist to admit, but my childhood was an embarrassment of stability and fond memories.) However, I know that publicly voicing opposition to my family’s long held belief system would cause my mother to feel deeply betrayed.
As a result I’ve kept this project a secret from Mom which feels, I must say, pretty lousy.
I accidentally found a temporary remedy to this conundrum when I set out to write Every Bird in the Nest, an essay that was published in Superstition Review’s 22nd issue. In order to authentically record an ill-fated fishing outing with my dad when I was six, I needed to corroborate my story.
After writing the first draft I called my parents. Dad did not remember the event in question but Mom, at age 81, remembered minute details down to which coat I wore that day. I collected her memories and she handed over the phone to Dad who answered all of my fishing and geography-related questions. Between the three of us, over several days and many drafts, we recreated a factual story forty years after the event.
And that felt pretty darn good.
I honestly don’t know what I will do with my virtually dusty manuscript that I’m quite certain my mother won’t approve of. But I do know that my obsession surrounding this subject matter won’t leave me. I may just need to open it up, let some light in and . . . dial the phone.