Monday, September 15, 2014

Parenting and Using It in Our Novels

From inception, this column has always been primarily about relationships. Admittedly I write more about the romantic ones, but recent events have made me consider other relationships and what those mean for writers.

I wrote last week about my mother who passed away less than two weeks ago. She was 87½. The pieces of the relationship I described were my experience at being parented by her. I’m sure my brother and sister would have different perceptions and for sure different interactions. As I finished up that post, I wanted to challenge them to share what they experienced, remembered, perceived. But that won’t happen, I know.

However, it put me in the mood to remember the stories the three of us would share about childhood memories. They were wildly disparate. Different to the point that I wondered had we been there together. Was I interpreting through my own distorted lens and faulty memory what was not true? Surely that has happened to you as well.

As authors, our parented selves contain a trove of stories to delve into, to mine, to transform for our characters. The joys, the pains, the fears, all of these are part of our childhoods, and using them in our characters brings authenticity to our stories.

My parents were stern discipliners, stemming from their own experiences being disciplined in the years of The Great Depression. Mother was less severe than Daddy; we could usually get her to see an alternative.

But once Daddy made up his mind, there was no compromise and no veering from the course. It was as if he felt he would be less than a man if he changed his mind like women always seemed to do (in the minds of his generation). So, even if he knew he was wrong, and he was on so many occasions (Aren’t we all?), he stuck to the decision made.

He was quite physically abusive to me. Not so much to my siblings, but then they didn’t challenge him as much as I, the eldest, did. I was the one most like him in intellectual interests, I think. But his emotions were thwarted and twisted from the parenting and economic hardships he endured. Imagine a bright, bright man who had to quit school in 8th grade to help provide food for the family. Imagine that lack of education resulting in low-level factory and janitorial work for nearly 40 years that never challenged him intellectually. The grind of that kind of work would do a number on my psyche.

When I decided to become an educator he took it upon himself to change my mind. Since I was paying for my own education, I didn’t listen to him. However, one conversation has stayed with me for decades. Daddy: “Why would you spend all that money to be a teacher? If you’re going to spend that much, get a job that pays you more money.” Me: “But I love teaching. It’s important to me to enjoy my work, to give back to the world.” Daddy: “Work is to buy food and pay the rent. Work isn’t for you to enjoy.”

He could be very closed off. At other times he would cry, especially in later years. He liked to laugh, however, and his work nickname was “Happy”. But not so much at home. He resembled Lincoln physically, and like Lincoln he was a depressed personality through all the years I knew him. To Daddy the glass was never half full. There wasn’t a glass, and don’t go getting your hopes up for one appearing. He told me once that he had an advantage over me because I had high expectations, and so, was disappointed when things didn’t happen the way I wanted. He said that he was never disappointed because he didn’t expect good things. So sometimes he even was happily surprised when they did happen. He advised me to be more like him. I ignored that advice, too.

Today, he would have been turned in for child abuse. He used the belt or a switch on me a lot. I went to school with welts. Back in the day, what happened at home, stayed at home. He tried to grind me down into compliance and obedience to make his life easier. But it was my persistence and challenging that allowed me to achieve a good bit of success in my field. I am a resilient person.

He died at age 92, nearly two years ago. I regret that in all those years he was never able to say he was proud of me. That is very hurtful. I accomplished a lot--a PhD, wrote more than a dozen books, had some national reputation. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to say it. I have no idea why.

Does he sound like a Shakespearean tragedy character or what? All kinds of story fodder exists in the actions, beliefs, and personalities of the people who parented us.

I started a novel several years ago based on my father’s personality and foibles (with some embellishments, of course, for dramatic effect). I need to finish that novel, I think, to bring closure to a very difficult relationship. Writing has a way of doing that for me.

What in your parented life would help you shape a story character? Develop a plot point? Explain relationships?

If you want to read about the relationship with my mother, here are the links:

Mothers and Daughters

Everything I Know about Cooking Started with My Mother

Food Grieving

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