Guest Post, Amy Stonestrom: All in the Family

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.

Amy Stonestrom
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8 thoughts on “Guest Post, Amy Stonestrom: All in the Family

  • October 7, 2019 at 2:37 am

    Well said, Amy. I agree about the “embarrassment of stability and fond memories” childhood–which seems to run so counter to Hemingway’s quip that the best prep for a writer is an unhappy childhood. My childhood, too, was blessedly “normal”–but our past is our past, and there are always rich veins of ore to mine if we train ourselves to dig. Good luck with your memoir.

  • October 9, 2019 at 4:48 pm

    As a writer, I feel that sometimes we write because we want to be heard and we want our readers to listen. But when you write about something that’s meaniful to you, you want others to understand. It’s hard for others to be critique on their work. Especially, if it’s your own family members. When it’s a true story or I should say a memoir, the writer is expecting you as the reader to listen. If you dont like what they have to say, well, then their not supportive of you. But I really enjoyed reading this post about family and having a family understand where you come from. I know in my family we have alot of communication problems and difficulties with one another.

  • October 15, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    I can sympathize with holding back your writing, especially from family. It’s hard to hear criticism from those you love, even if you need to hear it.

  • October 15, 2019 at 10:04 pm

    This is definitely one of the hardest parts about writing. Your upbringing and your immediate family have such a huge role in making you who you are that they play naturally large parts in any reflective work, and sometimes they play the part of an antagonist. It can almost feel like a betrayal to share work that portrays them as such, and I completely relate to the dilemma of withholding truth and art for the sake of those you love or just putting it all out there.

  • October 16, 2019 at 9:08 am

    At first I was a bit skeptical about writing stemming from the writer’s obsessions until I took a deeper look and thought about the things I tend to write about and I realized that you hit it right on the nose! The memories and events that continually cycle through our minds often times have a way of creeping into our writing whether we know it or not.

    • October 21, 2019 at 11:56 am

      It caught me off guard too when she first said it and then I was like . . . “oh ya . . . how about that . . . ” 🙂

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