Family, Friends, and Our Stories

Lafayette Wattles & His Little Sister“Other things may change, but we start and end with family.”

What is family? For some, it is the heart, the marrow, the soul. For others, the dragon, the demon, the darkness. If we’re lucky, family is a light that guides us toward our own light, the one inside us.

I’m one of the lucky.

I don’t feel guilty for that, but I AM hyper-aware that not all families are created equal, and that when it comes to family I struck the mother-lode (and father-lode and sister-lode, so to speak).

I don’t come from money. My parents didn’t go to college. They got jobs after high school (before and after the Army for my dad, before and after my sister and I were both school age for my mom) and they spent their entire adult lives working extremely hard.

I was lucky because my grandparents never felt entitled. My parents never felt entitled. My sister and I never had a reason to feel entitled.

We did, however, feel happy! And loved!
My parents sacrificed a great deal so that my sister and I never wanted for anything, but they also taught us to live within our means. They showed us the importance of not just making due with what we had, but of appreciating it. That goes for the people in our lives, as much if not more than any of the material things.

They also showed us the importance of being ourselves regardless of whether or not we fit in as a result.

I came across the anonymous quote at the top of this post on one of those decorative wall signs you find in some homes, on the wall of my old bedroom actually (the current computer room in my parent’s home), and it struck me as being true. For me, at least.

Of course, I’ve known too many kids, really, who couldn’t say that about their own lives and, in a way, those are the people I write for, and about, and to in my poetry and in my fiction.

It’s easy to assume that most people live the same way we do, when that often isn’t the case. That doesn’t mean the way we live is better or worse, just different. I’m drawn to differences, compelled by them.

In my photography, I am drawn to the juxtaposition of angles, to things that push up against other things, that seem almost in conflict merely by being contrary in some way. In my writing, I am drawn to these same things, only the differences I write about often tend to be internal and invisible.

If not for the love and support of my family, chances are I wouldn’t be pursuing my dream of establishing a career as a Young Adult author.

How many kids never have the chance to pursue their dreams because they don’t have that sort of support. To be honest, some kids have socioeconomic and cultural and historical and geographic obstacles to overcome before they’re ever even born, but they also have parents and siblings and other family members (and friends) who do everything they can to prevent them from realizing their dreams (if not to prevent them from dreaming at all).

So, I know I’m lucky. I’m very mindful of that fact.

My family inspires me to write and many of the projects I’m working on (and that I intend to work on next) are responses of sorts to their love and their encouragement.

Only I often create families who don’t offer that sort of compassion and devotion to each other. I explore the idea of what it might be like to be someone who wants to accomplish this thing or that, someone who doesn’t simply not have a strong family to rely on, but who has a family that seems set on destroying any chance.

Then I explore what sort of person is able to overcome that.

I have met some of those people and they inform my work. I have also met people who’ve succumbed to those additional, and tragically unfair, obstacles.

I write about my family and about my friends, but I also write even more about people I’ve never met, about people who exist mostly (if not wholly) in my mind.

When it comes to the role of the artist, and specifically of the storyteller, Ellen Morgenstern writes: “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

That is what I want to accomplish when I write.

Lafayette Wattles & His Sister Doing Ninja Training

My Top-Knot Sister & I (Ninja Training 1967)

As a boy, I was always surprised not by how close my sister and I were, but by how most siblings I knew weren’t very close at all. I’m not saying we had one of those psychic, telepathic bonds that twins sometimes seem to have, or that we could intuitively get what the other was thinking without words (or that we even understood each other when words were involved). I’m not even suggesting the latter to be true today (you know, now that my sister is so much older than she was as a child).   😉

But here’s what some people didn’t get when we were kids – I was the only person who was going to tell my sister she was annoying, the only one who was going to call her names or threaten to throttle her (even though I didn’t . . . there were other ways, after all, for me to get even). And it didn’t matter if you were some mean pigtailed seven-year-old girl or my hard-knuckled third-grade best friend or my thirty-something-year-old aunt or the captain of the Varsity football team or those three older boys who lived in our neighborhood who wouldn’t hesitate to pound me if I told them to leave her alone.

The special connection she and I had growing up, that we still have, is one of the best gifts my parents every gave us; and I do believe, in large part, we owe our closeness to them.

But we also owe it to her, my little sister, for being a better, stronger, kinder person than most people will ever realize.

I owe her as a writer, too, because she’s certainly provided me with an abundance of material to draw upon for my YA novels (some of the funniest stories, really), and even for my not-so-YA poetry (like “Death Comes in Smallness,” for example, which blends real events with imagined).

The family relationships I explore in my fiction, like Xero’s story, are sort of the antithesis of my own. And I am grateful for that, too.

One of the most amazing things about writing is that it offers you the opportunity to immerse yourself in another life and to work through situations that you might not otherwise have to (or get to) experience and to learn something about yourself in the process if you’re lucky.

I might have mentioned it before, but I’m very lucky. That’s not the sort of thing that should be taken lightly.

And I’m not talking just when it comes to family, but also when it comes to friends. I’ll get to that a bit more in another post, but for now I’d like to thank my mom and my dad and my sister (and also my niece) for giving me something many people never know. A family built on unconditional love.

I’d also like to thank them for some great story material. As Willa Cather put it, “most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” Boy, do I have a lot of great stuff to work with from that time in my life (most of which, not coincidentally, I owe to my adorably annoyingly always innocent little sister who was quite adept at getting me into trouble from a very early age – more on some specifics related to that next week).

Like I said before, if not for her, I may have never climbed the brick walls of my elementary school and hid on the roof, which means Xero may have never learned to climb, and that would certainly change his story.

Yes, other things may change, but if we’re lucky we start and end with a family who loves us for who we are, who supports us and encourages us to be that person regardless of whether they get us or not. If we’re lucky, family gives us the material for our stories, as well as the freedom and the support to tell those stories even when we may doubt ourselves. Especially then!

Stories have to be told,” after all, like Sue Monk Kidd suggests, “or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

Next week, I’ll explore a few specific stories I inherited, as well as a few ways some of my friendships over the years have influenced my work. Thank you for reading the blog and for your support. It means more than you know.

Whatever your dream, keep after it.

If you get time, I’d love to hear (either via email or in the comments section below) how your family impacts your pursuit of your dreams . . . what sort of part they might play in your story.