There must be a point beyond the pain

I always imagined that writing about my family would be what provided me with a sense of closure. Turns out I had that pretty much back asswards.

I wasn’t planning to write about my dearly departed parents when I signed up for the writing class at Hugo House four years ago. I wasn’t going to write about my very-much-alive stepfather, either.

There was a book about Pete Carroll that I’d been working on for about six years at that point, and by “working on” I mean that I had been telling people I was writing it. I’d even sent out some query letters, but most of this book was still in my head as opposed to being on the page, which is why, in early 2017, I signed up for a creative non-fiction class at Seattle’s Hugo House. I wanted to get out the jumper cables, give a jolt and see if my engine would turn over.

My Mom died a couple of weeks before the class started, though. This was sad, but not sudden. She had been diagnosed with cancer four years earlier and had made the decision to pass on a final round of chemotherapy just before the New Year. When she died in late March, she was at home surrounded by her three children.

Two weeks later I was sitting in a classroom at Seattle’s Hugo House, listening to a conversation about the power of personal narrative and I realized this was an opportunity to write about my family. All of it. My father, who had died when I was 13. My stepfather, and the dysfunction he had sewed into our family. My Mom, and everything she’d done to keep us close while enduring a life that was way tougher than anyone deserved, let alone someone who was as nice and caring as she was.

I had always felt that at some point I would write about my family. As a journalist, I knew the level of transparency this would require, though, and the desire to protect my Mom’s feelings kept me from doing anything more than daydreaming about it. But as I sat in that classroom on Capitol Hill in April 2017 listening to the teacher explain the difference between a memoir and a personal essay, I realized that there was no longer anyone I had to protect from the truth of my life. I felt a distinct prickle of excitement at telling this story. My story.

There was plenty of ego and ambition mixed in there, too. I didn’t just want to write the story. I wanted people to read it and for it to resonate. I wanted it to be something that earned attention – and potentially – some money. There was emotional freight here. Loss and love, tension and tenderness. I thought — after 20 years as a journalist — this was a story I was uniquely situated to tell. When I decided to write about my family on that April day in 2017, it felt like a turning point.

Man, I had a lot to learn about writing and about myself. It’s funny to look back at the first draft I turned in for that class. I’ve attached the first three pages below , but be forewarned, I mention pot and I’m trying painfully hard to be very casual about the whole thing.

The feedback I got from the other writers was unerringly compassionate and very encouraging. I was (kindly) alerted to the fact that the anger the narrator (me) was directing toward the stepfather was … extreme. The teacher said the intensity caused her to question the narrator’s trustworthiness. One of the other members of the class quite fairly pointed out that I probably didn’t need to state “I just didn’t like the dude” given that I ended a paragraph by stating I had once peed on the door handle of his car.

This was my first clue that my feelings about my stepfather – whom I had not spoken to in 14 years at the point – were not nearly as resolved as I thought. It also demonstrated that while this story was mine, I didn’t have the first clue about how to tell it. At least not in a way that would resonate with the audience.

This came as something of a surprise to me. I had always thought that the biggest hurdle to writing about my life would be my willingness to do so. I’d spent 14 years as a newspaper reporter, writing about the lives of other people, and one of the essential challenges of that task is convincing those people to give you the details that would make for a compelling story. I had access to all the facts of my story – some of which were at least moderately scandalous. I didn’t need to report my life; I just needed to write it.

Powerful personal writing requires more than proximity to pain, though. Much more. You need a point, and I wasn’t sure what mine was. I was sad about my parents, and I was still mad at my stepfather, but I didn’t know what to do from there. At least not yet.

More than four years have passed since I started writing about my family, and my life has changed a great deal in that time. I moved from Seattle to New York. I went from hosting a sports-talk radio show to being a freelance writer. I still have the ambition to write a book on Pete Carroll, but it’s the story about my family that I’m working hardest on right now. I’ve even talked to my stepfather (twice) for the first time in more than 17 years.

It’s funny, I always imagined that writing about my family would be what provided a sense of closure for me. Turns out I had that pretty much back asswards. Finding that sense of closure is what has allowed me to write about it.

I have most of a first draft finished now. I know what I want to say. Now, I have to figure out the way that I want to say it. I’m going to be tackling that over the next year, and on Saturday I’ll be participating in the first session in a year-long workshop with half a dozen other writers. “The lost sportswriter” is going to follow my progress and provide insights on the discoveries that I’ve made along the way.

 

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